Warning. I’m climbing on a soapbox and it might take me a while to get off.
I’ve been fascinated with the discussions about the movie version of the bestselling book The Hunger Games and the racist tweets that flew around the internet. The tweets expressed disappointment and downright anger of some fans when they discovered that a black actress was cast in the role of one of the more sympathetic characters in the story. Amandla Stengerg, in my opinion, was perfect for the role of Rue, but evidently some readers not only didn’t like that she was black, they claimed that her race changed their positive opinion about the character.
“Now I don’t care that she died,” one young tweeter wrote.
Clearly, their reading comprehension skills weren’t up to the task of visualizing a character in a story they enjoyed as being anything other than white.
As shocking and disturbing as the tweets were, they served to prove a point I’ve been trying to make for some time.
In 2008, I blogged about my frustration with brick and mortar bookstores and their practice of sticking every book written by a black author in the African-American section of the store.
“To make it easier for shoppers to find what they want,” I was told when I asked about it.
But, the only people who browse the African-American section of the book store are African-American. I’ve never seen a white person shopping in that section. Why would they? When I wrote my blog post on the subject, I argued that the bookshelf segregation only serves to ensure that black authors aren’t exposed to an audience made up of people other than their own race.
Sure, lots of white readers are fans of Walter Mosely, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, the black mega authors whose work crosses the racial boundary and authors the brick and mortar stores feel comfortable placing on tables alongside books written by white authors. But for the most part, African-American authors are segregated into the African-American section, where only African-Americans shop.
Frankly, even I don’t shop in those sections. I’ve found that a majority of the books offer views into Tyler Perry-type worlds where black people only live and work with other black people. Their lives are all about being black, about the black experience, basically books centered around race.
That is not how I live. That is not my life. That is not the life my characters live.
A recent critique I received from an editor about my novel went something like, “Okay, your character is a female soldier and she’s black. So what? I kept expecting to see more of her blackness in the story.”
Because I’m a black author, all I get to write about is being black? Do female authors only get to write about being a woman? And when has a white author written about what it means to be white?
The editor’s reaction leads me to believe the only reason black authors are writing about being black is because white publishers expect that from us. Black = the black experience, whatever the hell that is. The character can’t just be black, they have to talk black, act black, suffer some sort of discrimination, be a drug dealer or gang banger or fill some kind of stereotypical role to remind us all that they are black. After all, all characters in books, unless told otherwise, are white, so we’re forced to make the distinction.
The tweets from the disappointed movie goers proved to me that I was right about the African-American sections of book stores. These sections do nothing but segregate authors from people who would simply not browse there. If you don’t want to read a book that features a black character, you can easily avoid the exposure to them.
I hoped that ebooks would change the practice as they’ve changed so many things about the publishing world. I am happy to see that there aren’t African-American sections in ebook stores.
Instead ebooks written by black authors are simply stuck in the mass ebook pile. They’re not also listed in Romance, or Mystery, or Fantasy. They’re just in the giant list of ebooks which means they rarely, not even Walter Mosley, make it into the top 100 lists.
One of the racist Hunger Games tweeters said, “Why does Rue have to be black? Not gonna lie. Kinda ruined the movie for me.”
The tweeter doesn’t have to worry. When it comes to black characters, it’s unlikely they will ever stumble across that unwanted black central character just by browsing the ebook lists.
Not gonna lie. Kinda pisses me off.