Considering the success of recent films such as “Twelve Years a Slave” and “The Butler” — both of which were based on books by black authors — it'd be easy to assume that we've entered a golden age of black literature.
But things aren't that simple. A decade ago, it did seem as if black authors had found their rightful place at the literary table, but these days the table is emptier and emptier, not due to lack of talent but to decreased opportunity.
Black authors enjoyed a wave of success from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, said Ron Kavanaugh, whose mosaicbooks.com focuses on black literature. But that cycle seems to have ended — and for a variety of reasons.
The collapse of chain bookstores played a role. Retailers such as Books-a-Million had special sections for black history books and urban fiction, a coded term for black-themed novels. Those retailers couldn't find profit in an increasingly Web-dominated world, and brick-and-mortar stores closed down as Amazon and other online vendors took up the slack. In the Bronx, Kavanaugh's home and one of New York City's five boroughs, there is now one Barnes & Noble serving 1.3 million people.
Black bookstores are doing no better. Publishers Weekly recently reported that “the number of black bookstores has declined precipitously since 2002,” with fewer than 100 remaining nationwide. The oldest such shop, San Francisco's Marcus Books, is struggling to remain open after 44 years in business.
Another part of the problem is simple supply and demand. While books by African authors are doing well in America and abroad, African-American works aren't as popular overseas, possibly because the experience of being black in America is so specific that it doesn't translate well to a larger audience.
At the same time, publishers worldwide are taking fewer risks, relying on established writers and giving fewer first-time authors a chance. This is true even of smaller presses, including those devoted to black writers.
The success of “The Butler” and “Twelve Years a Slave” — a slave narrative written by Solomon Northup in 1853 and resurrected by the film — can be considered an achievement for black authors. The filmed versions, however, can also be interpreted as relatively bland and unchallenging. The same goes for “The Help,” a white-
authored book and film that highlight the plight of black domestic workers in the South.
“I think that these movies are made for a white audience or nonblack audience. ... If you look at those three movies, the black people are in a really subservient role, almost a less than human role,” Kavanaugh said. “I can only hope that we can break out of that mold.”
The books look back on history from a safe distance, telling tales of past injustices that, while significant, have little correspondence to modern events. It's the absolving tide of time, a sort of passive voice look at history where no one in particular is to blame.
That isn't to say that more aggressive works don't exist. They do. They're simply not being turned into movies that allow us to congratulate ourselves on how far we've come.
Jesmyn Ward, for example, is a world-class writer who won the 2011 National Book Award and the 2012 Alex Award for her second novel, “Salvage the Bones.” The book was set in the recent past, focusing on the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina and its immediate aftermath.
Her next book, published last year, was a punishing memoir. “The Men We Reaped” takes its title from a quote by Harriet Tubman, a former slave who was an abolitionist and Union spy during the Civil War. Tubman spoke of reaping dead soldiers from the fields in which they fell; Ward wrote specifically about the death of her brother and four friends and in general about the limited options and expectations of young black men.
“So much of what has happened in the past in the United States has real consequences in the present,” Ward told www.biographile.com. “I think that's something that people forget about, and that when they see these statistics, when they see the news about another young black man shot, or hit by a random bullet, they don't connect the two.
“I really want people to be aware that the history of racism, the history of poverty, and this larger culture that, in general, unfortunately, devalues black people — that they have real consequences in real lives, and everything that happens at the present moment is not just a result of some mythical personal choice, and the choices you make in your life have no connection to anything else.”
Examples can be seen in the news nearly every day. Stories of black on black violence, black incarceration rates and questionable jury decisions in the deaths of people such as Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis illustrate that while America is multicultural, it isn't post-racial. Identity politics are an innate part of society, and thus a natural component of black literature.