street lit

Too Hood or All Good?

by Marcela ValdesThe Washington Post Book World. June 18, 2006.

The African American Book Industry Professionals Conference took place on a Thursday this year, while most of the Washington Convention Center still hummed with preparations for Book Expo America. For many attendees, the real excitement began when Nick Chiles convened a panel called "Too Hood or All Good?: The Impact of Urban Fiction on African American Literature" in a large, windowless room.

There was the expectation of a fight.

Urban fiction -- also known as hip-hop fiction, ghetto fiction, and street lit -- is a big deal in African American bookstores these days, with good reason. It's helping many of them survive. Bernard Henderson of Alexander Books in San Francisco estimates that 50 percent of his store's sales came from street lit last year. That's about $600,000.

"At one point it was all about romance: the Terry McMillan, the Eric Jerome Dickey, the E. Lynn Harris stories," Henderson explains. Now the big sellers are Vickie Stringer, Nikki Turner, and Noire. Their books are love stories, too, but gritty, violent ones that often involve dealers, junkies and ho's.

Chiles isn't pleased by the change. In January, the author threw down his glove, declaring in a New York Times op-ed piece that urban fiction's "lurid book jackets" turn African American literature sections into "a pornography shop," and that "the sexualization and degradation of black fiction" left him "thoroughly embarrassed and disgusted." Industry professionals should stem the rise of these books, Chiles argued, before they crowd out literary volumes by authors such as Benilde Little and Edward P. Jones.

Most of the audience wasn't having it. "I'm an abandoned child," bestselling author Treasure E. Blue proclaimed during the Q&A portion. "I've seen horrors through these eyes that I still can't get out of my head. Things that happened to me as well as my sister.

"Things they done to me as well as I done to them. But this is my story. You cannot fault a person for telling these stories."

"Some of these people who sell a hundred thousand copies allow me to publish the other, award-winning writers," said Atria book editor Malaika Adero. She also acknowledged that it's difficult to find placement for the full range of her titles in stores.

But the loudest applause came when singer-songwriter Kia Jeffries took the floor. "I'm middle class; I'm from Queens; both my parents are college educated," she announced. "But I got a Kwame in my family that's been locked up ten times. You're gonna have an Oprah in the family and you're gonna have a Kwame in that family, too."

"But do you want to read about Kwame?" Chiles asked her.

"Sure, I want to read about Kwame, because sometimes I'm like, 'Damn, Kwame, why you keep getting locked up?' "

"Instead of us trying to push Kwame to the back closet and not deal with Kwame," she said, "you have to deal with Kwame."

"Du Bois attacked ragtime and the cakewalk in the same way we now talk about rap and booty-shaking videos," Chiles observed early in the session. And as long as people care about culture, the argument isn't going away.