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Urban, Street Literature: Racial Coding in a Post-Racial Era

April 23, 2012
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I walked into our local public library this afternoon and there — front and center — was the “Urban Fiction” book display. There were two placards — one said “Urban Fiction” and the other read, “Street Lit.” (literature meaningfully abbreviated). Books on display were all authored by black writers and featured black characters — with titles like, “it is what it is by nikki canter” and “The Beast by Walter Dean Myers”.

A short rap rhyme was given to help us understand “urban, street lit.” It was as follows:

Urban Fiction is a script/ Urban Fiction is full of wit/ Urban fiction is a writ/ Urban fiction can slit and spit,/ and piquant a curious bit./ Urban fiction is a get, Urban fiction is a fit. Urban Lit. is a kind of prose,/ The words come forth, all rapidly flows/ Urban fiction is a kind of dialogue,/Some sophisticated but ordinary blog/ Urban Literature cannot Assuage/ It’s rapidly lined without a pause/ Urban Literature can be funky with its meter/ and leaves it’s tracks with the reader/ Urban literature leads you to a peak, a ridge/ They say it is like it is/ One has to just cross over the bridge.

When I was growing up, during the racial era, that is — I could walk into our local library and the display would read, “Black Literature – Young Adult”. The explanation would describe novels about growing up in the racist South or the streets of Harlem or about being poor and spunky. In nearly all of them — love was found, lost, re-discovered and celebrated.

I was an awkward, frequently unfriendly and a too-serious teenager (shocking, I know). I still remember burying my nose in a book, completely immersed, while a group of boys felt the need to describe my anatomy to the entire classroom, pointing at science diagrams of penis and vagina. The wave of laughter was always at the edge of the world that I occasionally had the merciful option to step out of.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that our free, public local library was my safe space — that books saved me. I devoured Stephen King, Nancy Drew, the V.C. Andrew franchise, the Sweet Valley High crap. And while I loved all books, there was (is) a special place in my grateful heart for the ones that told me stories of other kids of color. Particularly stories of black and brown kids who didn’t get along with anyone and didn’t have too many friends (unlike the Sweet Valley High girls and their glamorous boyfriends).

It did not matter so much that I wasn’t living in Harlem or in Tennessee during the 50s and I wasn’t the preacher’s daughter in love with the non-church going character (gang member, dancer, musician, whatever). Nonetheless, I cherished these stories and for whatever reason, understood these experiences as mine in a way that was different from what felt like trespassing into the problems of the babysitting club.

Times have changed. Nowadays, instead of talking about race or poverty or even romance, the black teenage experience is reduced to a toothless rhyme about ‘the streets’ and hip-hop (and apparently, ‘ordinary blogs’).

A condescending explanation is given and the genre is othered by tagging it as grammatically off. Stories about street communities or black communities sells us the “sex, violence and cursing”, while erasing words like race or poverty. In the post-racial era, race is re-constructed for an America that has a black president, scrubbed clean of any offensive “racial-ity”.

I want to be clear. I am not really critiquing the books themselves, but how young adult black fiction is branded these days. I realize that this branding is a thing that has been booming in this country for a while now. Book sellers need marketable ways of selling their wares that cost-effectively codes for “edgy”, “cool” and “non-literary”. (I will not derail into a rant about how people of color and poor people’s experiences are always re-appropriated to sell this strangely softened version of ‘edge’). Not only does this framing reduce the real ingenuity of these novels, but also mistrusts the intelligence of young (black) readers.

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