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Collecting African American Literature

This is an interview which was first published in The Standard, the journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association, back in December 2001, but I think it is worth repeating here –

Regarding Black Writers & Literature

an interview with Chris Volk, bookseller and Shirley Bryant, editor of The Standard.

Q: One of your specialties is Black literature. How/why did you choose this area to specialize in?

A: I had both personal reasons and what I like to think are practical business reasons. The civil rights movement was very active when I was a college student, and in the years right after that, and while I was only involved in very minor ways (participating in a tutoring program, etc.) it was something I believed in, and I began to read and buy books related to blacks in America. In fact, this was one of the common areas of interest between me and my first husband (now deceased), who was black and working as a part-time lecturer in black studies when I met him. Since we had two daughters, I continued to buy books in this area, so that they would have them available.

When I started as a bookseller back in 1993, I was planning on selling books mostly by catalogues and at shows, and so within the overall area of modern first editions, I decided to focus on women authors and African American writers, two areas I both liked and felt were somewhat neglected, since historically most booksellers and book collectors in the U.S. have been white males. I also felt that since I was more knowledgeable about these areas than many booksellers, it gave me a little bit of an advantage that would offset my newness in the business.

Long considered to be the first novel to be published in the US by an African American women writer, "Iola Leroy" by Frances E. W. Harper, first published in Philadelphia in 1892, remains an important landmark in black literature, even though modern scholarship has discovered earlier novels

Long considered to be the first novel to be published in the US by an African American women writer, “Iola Leroy” by Frances E. W. Harper, first published in Philadelphia in 1892, remains an important landmark in black literature, even though modern scholarship has discovered earlier novels

Q: Which Black authors do you consider the best overall and why?

A: In terms of sheer literary elegance, I would have to say Ralph Ellison and the best of W. E. B. DuBois’s writings are extremely powerful. I think we all know the list of classic African American authors, ranging from Frederick Douglass to Hurston to Wright and to Baldwin, so I am not going to select a ‘best’ from among them.

I am not even going to try and select some favorites because so often it is a question of which writer affects you the most on a particular day or in a particular mood. I will mention a few who I think don’t get the recognition they deserve: Percival Everett (who has written many novels over about 20 years, with a new, very funny one out just this year), Paule Marshall, Gayl Jones (her personal tragedies made her name better known for a while, but I think she is still not read enough), James Alan McPherson (he won the Pulitzer prize for one collection of short stories, but I wish he would write more), Sherley Anne Williams, George Lamming (from the Caribbean) I could go on and on and on another day, my list might be completely different. Many of the African American writers whom I like are poets, rather than novelists.

Q: Do you think Black authors have a unique perspective because of being Black, or is that irrelevant? If they do have a unique perspective, do you think they’re writing things that non-Blacks can relate to, or are their experience foreign to most other races/ethnic groups? I guess what I’m asking is whether most Black literature is based on a past of poverty and oppression that any struggling ethnic group can relate to, or is it unique to American Blacks?

A: To the extent that some (not most) African American literature is based on a past of poverty and oppression, I think it speaks to all groups who have struggled against these – however, the black experience in the U.S. is unique in many ways: the length of their history in the U.S. going back to the 17th century, the fact that they were brought to the U.S. unwillingly as slaves, and also that the form of slavery to which these Africans were subjected in the west was in many ways the worst the world has ever known (the only one which considered slaves as chattels, of no more significance than ownership of cattle).

The other important thing to realize in looking at African American literature is that in many ways it is part of a world literature or a trans-Atlantic literature. The term “diaspora” is used to indicate the spread of those of African descent to most parts of the western world. So my own personal perspective has been broadening to include Afro-Caribbean writers (many of whom left the Caribbean and went to England, France, Canada and the U.S.), Afro-Brazilian, and African writers. In fact, if you are talking about a writer from Puerto Rico or Cuba who has come to the United States, is that writer a Latin American or an African American or both?

One other point: the best literature is universal – Thus Grapes of Wrath speaks to all readers, not just migrant farm workers, and I think so does Wright’s Native Son, and Baldwin’s Go Tell It on a Mountain and Zora Neale Hurston’s Jonah’s Gourd Vine, to give just a few examples.

Q: Do most Black authors only write about Black characters? I’m curious about this, as Caucasian authors seem to write about all nationalities and racial and ethnic groups (although perhaps not with the authority that an author from a particular country or racial or ethnic group brings to writing), and most of the admittedly few current Black authors I’ve read seem to stick to Black characters and Black situations.

A. I guess I am partly curious about why you say that white writers seem to write about all nationalities and ethnic groups. Certainly one sees this in children’s literature where in the past the writers were almost exclusively white, but the children were often from different countries, or little black children. But I think in serious literature it is much less common for a white writer to have the protagonist of the work be of another race. Again, in the past, some Southerners wrote novels in dialect, but these were intended to confirm white readers in their belief that Negroes were simple, child-like, happy folks, or untrustworthy and shifty or whatever.

I don’t want to say that there aren’t any exceptions, because of course, there are but they are precisely that, exceptions: To give just one very modern example, Susan Straight is a white woman who set her first few books exclusively within the black community but she was married to a black man and living within that community at the time and her books stand out precisely because they are uncommon.

1829 bill from an estate sale listing the slaves sold at auction. Documents like this are a vivid testament to the inhumanity of slavery.

1829 bill from an estate sale listing the slaves sold at auction. Documents like this are a vivid testament to the inhumanity of slavery.

Some other interesting exceptions occurred during the Harlem Renaissance when you had a white woman like Nancy Cunard create the massive anthology “Negro” or Marc Connelly write a play like “Green Pastures” Langston Hughes referred to this phenomenon rather uncomplimentarily in one of his poems, but the fact remains that the Harlem Renaissance was a time in which it was “popular” to be black. Similarly, during the Civil Rights era and the Black Power movement, there was a certain allure to the whole scene which led to many writers who were not black featuring black protagonists.

However, it is true that most white writers have, in a sense, more freedom to write totally outside their own culture or their own experiences. They have been given this freedom by society, where they are not expected to “uphold the race” and by publishers. However, one of the ongoing issues for many black writers is not just expressing themselves creatively but also how much of an obligation do they have to work to correct injustice through their writing. Should they always be thinking of the white reader who might read their books and find his/her stereotypes confirmed if they described a black man as brutal or unfaithful (a criticism leveled against Alice Walker and Gayl Jones, for example)?

Richard Wright, whose books focused on the daily injustices blacks faced in America, felt that Zora Neale Hurston was wrong in writing her novels about a self-contained black world. I just got a copy of Bronze, the second collection of poetry by Georgia Douglas Johnson, a minor Harlem Renaissance writer. Her first collection was criticized because it dealt with the “heart” and not race, so this was her book of poems on race (although still infused by the heart), and in her last book, she again ignored race.

An interesting example is Charles Perry: his first and only published novel Portrait of a Young Man Drowning, was based on his own experience of juvenile gangsters in his Brooklyn neighborhood, but it features almost exclusively white characters – a decision made, according to Perry’s daughter, out of a fear that issues of race could cloud the humanity of the characters. Did this make it harder for him to get published?

Just two more very different examples: Many people still do not realize that Frank Yerby was a black man. His earlier books did not have a picture of him on the dustjacket, and almost all of his books are historical fiction, adventure novels, and so on, set almost exclusively within a white world. When Charles Chesnutt published his first book, even though it used dialect, it was thought that he was white. In fact, he was light skinned enough that he could have easily passed for white, but instead his novels became increasing more “political” and less popular. What had been considered his last novel, The Colonel’s Dream, was published while he was still relatively young, and only a few years after his first, and sold poorly. In fact, a recently found later novel of his has just been published, and this is the story of a man who grows up thinking he is black, and discovers that he is white (does this count as a black writer writing a novel with a white protagonist?)

So African American authors have both pressure from others in their communities to write about black people for many different reasons and from publishers who find it easier to keep writers in a ‘box’, a desire to overcome the prejudices and injustices they have faced, a dramatic history to write about is it surprising that they mostly write about black characters?

Q: Do you believe it is harder, today, for a Black author to find a publisher? To be marketed as a mainstream author by publishers? Or do their works command a smaller audience which discourages publishers from pushing their work?

A: Most African American writers would be considered ‘mid-list’ writers. I think that all mid-list writers are having problems now in finding publishers, but yes, this situation is probably exacerbated for black authors. I recently went to a signing by Mary Monroe, who just published her second novel more than 10 years after her first one and the reason was that she could not find a publisher. I can give several other examples of women who have had good critical reviews, or even won prizes for their books, but they wind up with no publisher for a while.

Zorah Neale Hurston's first book in a slightly battered, but still vivid and attractive, and very scarce, dustjacket with art by Miguel Covarrubias.

Zorah Neale Hurston’s first book in a slightly battered, but still vivid and attractive, and very scarce, dustjacket with art by Miguel Covarrubias.

Marketing is, of course, another issue and it is one that becomes very obvious in some bookstores where African American writers are for the most part put in a separate section of the store. In a way, this increases the ‘ghettoization’ of black authors, by implying that only black readers will be interested in their books. Writers like Toni Morrison obviously have broken out of this, but I think this trend is increasing.

Q: What genres seem to attract the most Black authors? Does their being Black usually have an effect on these choices?

A: African Americans write in all genres aside from straight “literature” there are many black writers in mysteries, romance, science fiction, juvenile and children’s literature. Perhaps the genres where they are relatively under-represented are science fiction and Western fiction.

Q: Am I mistaken that most of the currently popular Black literature authors are women? If that is true, what is your thinking on why?

A: If by popular you are referring to those who appear on the best seller lists consistently like Bebe Moore Campbell or Terry MacMillan or even Toni Morrison, then it might seem so. Remember most book buyers in the U.S. are women, and one of the things that Campbell and MacMillan seem to have done is to write novels about black women facing emotional/family/romantic/financial problems in a way that has more to do with being middle class American than specifically African American so that makes their novels popular enough that they will hit the best seller list. I don’t pay attention to the best seller lists all that much but I will agree that there do not seem to be any African American male writers who approach the popularity of Clancy, King, Koontz, etc.

However, when looking at literature overall, there are many popular African American writers who are men. With some exceptions, popularity usually means that a book is less challenging, so I am not sure that is an important goal.

Q: Are most Black literature authors (as opposed to autobiographical, nonfiction, or politically related writing) from the U.S.? If so, why?

A: Well, I dealt with this a little above, but no, most of them are not from the United States. Africa and the Caribbean have both produced Nobel Prize winning authors (to use just one yardstick) the Caribbean especially has produced a large number of interesting authors, both in the past with such writers as Aime Cesaire and currently with not just “giants” of literature like Derek Walcott, but also with many interesting younger writers, such as Jamaica Kincaid and Edwidge Danticat and Caryl Phillips (and remember, not all black literature is written in English – much of it is in French and some in Spanish.) Many writers move between countries – in other words, lots of Caribbean writers go to Canada or England or the U.S., and back again.

Q: Do you think that popular Black authors are helped a lot by the publicity Oprah gives their work? What other venues or people are helping Black authors?

A: I can’t really give a complete list of authors Oprah has selected, but it seems to me that her effect has been much more dramatic on some of the white woman writers she

Two books by women writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Shown is an uncommon inscription by Harlem Renaissance writer Jessie Fauset in a first edition of her novel "Plum Bun" and a copy of Georgia Douglas Johnson's second book of poetry, "Bronze."

Two books by women writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Shown is an uncommon inscription by Harlem Renaissance writer Jessie Fauset in a first edition of her novel “Plum Bun” and a copy of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s second book of poetry, “Bronze.”

has selected: specifically, I am thinking of her first selection, Jane Hamilton, who was very little known until that happened.

In a sense, Oprah is much more conservative in selecting African Writers: many have already won recognition. Toni Morrison was already a Nobel Laureate, Ernest Gaines had won the National Book Award, Crosby books were already all best sellers, etc. I might be missing someone but offhand I cannot think of an unknown young African American fiction writer who she selected.

Q: I’ve had some Black customers who only collect works by Black authors. Do you find this prevalent?

A: Most collectors have to limit their collection – African American collectors are no exception. Certainly, many of them collect primarily in certain periods (Harlem Renaissance, or modern literature or late 19th century), but I have had African American collectors who only collect mysteries, one who was a serious Anne Rice collector, others who collect children’s books.

And many of the collectors whom I have dealt with who collect African American authors are not themselves African American.IOBA-Chris5

Q. What percentage of your sales are books by Blacks?

A: I actually looked this up because I wasn’t sure and I was surprised to see that African American books are approximately 15% of the books which we have catalogued and represent about 15% of our sales (in terms of numbers of books). The only difference is that the average sales price is somewhat higher than our overall average, and this reflects the fact that I will put more energy into “buying” in this area.

I would like to see a higher percentage of our books in this area, actually, but finding really good quality books is becoming more and more challenging.

Interview by Shirley Bryant.

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