I’m a black author who writes about black women; and not only that, many of these black women 1.) don’t hate the fact they’re black, 2.) are involved with nonblack men, 3.) don’t hate black men.
And, of course, the only people who care to read about black women are other black women, obviously; and since only about five black women in the whole country read (if you go by mainstream publishers’ insinuations), then why put any money behind those stories, anyway? If you’re not writing something that’s salacious, overly heavy and deep ala Toni Morrison, or minimizes the “Negro Factor”, then your book will not enjoy the same amount of support as your white counterparts. Not only that, if a white author can write a similar story, his/her account will be “more authentic” than yours, because stories by white authors, no matter what the color of the characters, are always more universal than stories by Authors of Color (AoC), no matter what color the characters (and goodness help the AoC who writes about white characters)…especially if these stories are love stories.
Which are what I write.
When my first book came out, I was on a plane returning to Boston after having my very first book signing in my hometown. I was sitting beside a very happy white man (he’d been imbibing a bit), but he was chatty and friendly, and I told him I was an author. Never mind that being the first time I ever uttered those words out loud and actually meant them, but his eyes had perked up and he asked to see the book. I gave him the only copy I had on me, knowing I would get it back. He flipped through to the middle and began to read. After a few moments, he then pulled out a fifty, gave to me, and demanded I autograph “his” book. And then for the rest of the plane ride we started talking about race relations and how things have changed or haven’t, and it wasn’t those conversations where he was “challenging the authenticity of my experiences”, but an honest-to-goodness dialogue. It was the first time I realized my stories really could be universal, because I can admit this white man’s face was not among the ones I saw in the audience for whom I’d been writing. By this point, my novel had been rejected several times, one letter even going so far as to say I mentioned race too much, even though the potential agent knew the story was about a black girl and white boy who were former childhood friends reunited on a newly integrated college in 1960s Georgia.
Good luck trying to avoid mentioning race often in that story!
But it wasn’t just the white man who surprised me. It was the white women who’ve e-mailed me and said how much they just loved this book and asked to put it in their libraries; it was my white teachers from high school in South Carolina who just looked at me in amazement and couldn’t stop raving about this story. It was the black men at the book fairs who would talk me to death about the book and its relevant themes while holding it in a ninja grip. It was the black boys who saw their mama/sister/aunt in Coralee and really liked the book. It’s the white boy who, after hearing discussions about it, said he was going to buy it because the story sounded interesting.
Thank goodness I’d started self-publishing, or else I doubt I would’ve gotten to see all of this for myself. I would’ve been shuttled off into the “black sections of the bookstores”, the sections that are as far from the entrance and tucked around a corner so that nobody but those who know what they’re looking for will ever find it. I actually talked to someone from Borders Corporate about that, and she…couldn’t give me an answer. Not that it surprised me. There are arguments for and against having an African-American section and having books integrated into the bookstore as a whole. But the convenience of the section aside, I, as an author, don’t want my books separated like that. It’s like a big ole “blacks only” sign that apparently doubles as a force field to prevent those who don’t meet the melanin threshold barrier from entering the section or something. I don’t think I’ve ever in my life seen a white person come to that section whenever I’ve gone into bookstores unless they’re getting Zora Neale Hurston or Richard Wright for their kids’ English classes. And then this whole business about being “tricked” into reading black books because the cover wasn’t clear? I know all books I see have at least dust-jacket or back-cover blurbs, and if the blurb was good enough to pull you in…I don’t understand why the actual color of the characters can make a reader flip the script. Was it because these white readers really could relate to stories about black characters—especially romances? Did you know black women liked to be held tenderly? That black women liked to be courted and wooed? That black women do have jobs other than wearing a polyester uniform and taking someone’s order? That black men really do run companies they created from the ground up and then don’t run after the first white/nonblack woman they meet once they’ve made it? That black men still are attracted love black women? That black people can have healthy, loving relationships? That white/Asian/Native/Hispanic men of all races can be attracted to love a black woman without fetishizing her? That this same premise applies when the couples are same sex as well?
But there are some major “politics of respectability” going on in “black imprints” for mainstream publishers. Some of the guidelines include “heroine must not be involved with anyone but the hero; couples must use condoms; heroine isn’t allowed to get pregnant without being married or engaged”, and I’m thinking, not even white women in novels have to adhere to such strict rules! I don’t know how many “Secret Baby” stories Harlequin publishes in a month. But if the black characters don’t, it’s suddenly “street lit”, which has its own problematic connotations about suspected quality of the writers and its readers (i.e., mostly and unfairly negative, even if I don’t read street lit myself). But this either/or dichotomy over what kind of stories black authors at mainstream publishers are allowed to tell are exactly why many of us aren’t accepting any old contract we get from them. That we’re putting our books out ourselves. Because after four hundred years of not being able to say a damn thing, like hell I’m not going to say what I want and how I want now. But the publishing industry/media at large continues to have its “Time to Kill” moments and put white faces on black stories or insert white people in stories not about them, as if “White folks, or it didn’t/doesn’t happen/matter!” is the appropriate business model in a world that is certainly not majority white and, in the case of the United States, in a country that is headed by a nonwhite family and will increasingly not be nonwhite in the next few decades. The default universal experience has not been, nor will it ever be, “white”. And, sure, people have the right to write whatever they want, which includes white people writing nonwhite characters (though there doesn’t seem to be the same regard for nonwhite authors writing white characters); but when those white authors get a larger share of the market telling my stories, I just have to echo Ms. Mahalia Jackson: “How come, mister, you think you can tell me about that old song, when it was born in my mouth?”
I can carry a tune. I can sing just fine.