Reading Across the Racial Divide
I read a post on author Tayari Jones’ blog earlier this month, that hasn’t left my mind. She asks why books by black writers aren’t considered universal, starting her post with these words: “In the last few years, black writers have been speaking out about double standards in the world of publishing. Among these are Martha Southgate's NYT essay, "Writers Like Me " and more recently, Bernice's MacFadden's Black Writers in A Ghetto of the Publishing Industry's Making . In these articles, both writers (who also are novelists) put into a public conversation the issues that black writers have been complaining about for years-- like why is that stories about black folks that are written by white folks get so much traction. (The Help, The Secret Lives of Bees, Little Bee, etc.) How come books about us by us are not thought to be "universal"? Why are black faces on the cover of a book thought to be so alienating? At this point in the gripe session, I break out my favorite oh-no-he-didn't moment-- when someone asked me what percentage of my work is "black" and what percentage is "human."” It’s not only a great post, it’s an important question for all readers and writers. For readers: you/we are missing a vast store of great books by staying within one’s cultural boundaries. We're missing great reads, and as important, we’re missing that most important (to me) method available to understand each other. How better to understand other’s experiences, than to immerse in their lives through novels and memoirs? Whether or not one has issues with The Help, it is beyond argument that one will be immersed in a more honest experiential read with Anne Moody than with Kathryn Stockett. Not that I think we should be reading across racial and cultural lines to do good, read for the common good, or as an act of charity. But Jones’ point in her post is important: as regards the need for black writers to be considered American authors as well as Black American authors, “It is going to be up to readers.” I am not going to belabor her points—she makes them far better than I could. I will say that I am grateful that I found her through Twitter (another point for Twitter!) And I am grateful that it led me to read one of her books, because now I can look forward to reading all her work. My main question is this: I gobble novels. I read a certain sub-genre (the troubled family in a troubled culture) like crazy. Leaving Atlanta is a perfect gem of the genre. I also read reviews, magazines, papers—you name it—like crazy. (My home would be a candidate for Hoarders, if I weren’t also addicted to recycling and clear surfaces.) So why didn’t I know about Jones before Twitter? Why is Kim McLarin, a great writer, not a household name? Why are there so few readings by black authors in Boston—a city rife with author visits? Yes, it’s up to us as readers to discover the gems we’ve been ignoring, such as Leaving Atlanta. Based on the true story of the Atlanta child murders from 1979-80, the three narrators in this book will break your heart. Jones’ writes in the transparent manner I love—calling no attention to itself, while wrapping words seamlessly around the story with clarity, precision and beauty. Describing a scene of traumatized children, she writes "All of the kids wore weird expressions, like their eyes had been reversed and they were all staring inside their own heads." When we can read page-turning work, learn about history, and drink in great writing, that seems like a good deal to me—especially if we can pull away from ghettoizing writers at the same time.

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  • Randy Susan Meyers

    Thanks all for the great thoughts. I have a great debt to Tayari for opening my eyes to a world I was missing. Writers connect with each other on a deep level--it's also our job to help readers connect with our sister and brother writers.

  • Christie Williams

    Thank you for a wonderful post, Randy! I teach African American literature classes and I find it extremely important to talk about fiction in terms of the issues that are specific to African American experiences, as well as how the fiction speaks to a universal human experiences.

    This is a conversation that is important to me as both a writer and person who teaches literature. Thanks again!

  • Olyvia S. Taylor


  • Judith van Praag

    Hi Randy,
    Thanks for the great pointer to interesting reading material.
    You write: "Not that I think we should be reading across racial and cultural lines to do good, read for the common good, or as an act of charity."

    Doing something for the "common good" and performing an "act of charity" are not the same though, the first promises, learning and growth, the second speaks of doing the other a favor.

    Prejudism is most often based on on preconceived notions of fear for the unknown. The only way we can find out about each other is by reading about the other person or people's experience, getting to know the other, exposing ourselves to the other person's culture, mores and believes. If we do so, we may come to celebrate and embrace our differences as much as we celebrate and embrace our similarities.
    Therefore I do believe reading across the racial and cultural divide is for the common good.

  • DuEwa Frazier

    This is great and it gives us all something to think about. I personally think it starts at the school level. At an early age students are not introduced to many writers of diverse cultures, instead the books and stories that are read are majority from "one" perspective or culture. We learn at an early age that writers of color are not as "valued" unless it is the handful of writers that are deemed acceptable for both black and white youth to learn about (ie. Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Walter Dean Myers etc.). As a society we need to do a better job of being inclusive. Judging from the recent turn of events with Fox News, USDA admin, and Shirley Sherrod, we have a long way to go as far as race is concerned, let alone racism in publishing.

  • Karen Simpson

    Thank you. I really appreciate you speaking out :)

  • Dasaya Cates

    Thought provoking. Very much like ... especially the "ghettoizing" part. And I know it goes beyond this point, but at least some people realize we're not all writing "urban fiction."

  • Simone John

    I really appreciate this comment! Also, thanks for the suggestion re: Leaving Atlanta, I definitely have to check that one out.

  • Randy Susan Meyers

    Well, after the like button, we can get a "thanks for giving me a smile button."

  • Lori L. Tharps

    I agree with Carleen. Needs a 'like' button. Beautiful piece. And thanks for your comment on my blog post.

  • Carleen

    SheWrites needs a like button.