My Love/Hate Relationship with the AA Lit Section

Like Richard Wright's novel Native Son, I Know...

I need to see more of this man in my bookstore, and not in the AA section. Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been moving this post further and further back in my mind because I didn’t know how to approach it or if my readership would understand exactly where I was coming from. However, the more I think about it, the more I realize that I’m not the only one who is being done a disservice here. At least I know I am being shortchanged. So, without further ado:

I have a love/hate relationship with the African-American Literature ( heretofore known as AA Lit)section in bookstores the world over. Whether it was Borders or Barnes and Nobles, or the used bookstore I found in the historic downtown district of my relatively small town, they all have a small AA Lit section somewhere. I am conflicted about this. There are pros and cons, in my mind, to “our” literature having its own section. I’ll go through the majors with you:

Pros:

  • I know where to find any book by, about, or “for” African-Americans.
  • I can see at a glance if a book by an AA author is in stock.

Cons:

  • If I don’t know the author’s race, I can spend a lot of time looking in the wrong places.
  • I can assume the bookstore doesn’t have a book because I don’t know the author is African-American.
  • Other races of people, as well as African-Americans,  don’t have the same exposure to African-American literature, as they have to seek it out in its separate section.
  • All African-American books are in the AA section, regardless of the genre of the work. In some cases, the AA section will include both fiction and non-fiction, history, sociology, books on writing, erotica, gay and lesbian literature, romance, thrillers, and cultural criticism.
  • I can’t explore the specific genre an AA author writes in without leaving the AA section and finding the appropriate section.
  • Other than the agreed upon classics (Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Color Purple, Invisible Man), Urban Literature (“Hoodwives of Atlanta, etc), Erotica by Zane, and commentary by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, the rest of Black/AA literature is glaringly underrepresented.
  • The AA section is usually in the back corner of the store, like a dirty secret.

It was recognized very early on that I liked to read. My mother and relatives always made it a point to buy/bring me books to read. They bought me books with little girls and boys on them that looked like me as well as the classic children’s books. I didn’t realize until I was older and buying my own books how hard it would be to find quality books by Black authors.

At first, it didn’t bother me that they had their own section. It made it easier to find Black authors if I wanted a specific book or author. But then, I noticed that the books were all the same after a while. They would stock a few that are inevitably chosen for high school or freshmen composition/English classes for the “African-American segment” of the class, a few that teen girls and popular fiction addicts would like (usually with adult themes of sexuality, infidelity, drug use/drug dealing, “pimping”, women using men for money, etc), and a few books by the default “Black leaders” of the day about how to progress. I stopped being exposed to new (to me) authors that I would like to read. I was relegated to Amazon to find a wider range of books by African-Americans. It was like they were telling me what I should be interested in reading by African Americans while making it difficult for anyone not specifically looking for AA Lit to stumble upon it.

I know that bookstores stock what they think will sell based up what has sold in the past, their relationships with publishers, the NYT bestseller list and probable book club/ school reading selections. But the placement of the books is in their control. I believe books should be placed by their genre, not by the race of their author. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings should be in the same section as Augusta Gone. The Dew Breakers should be in the same section as The Bonesetter’s Daughter. Erotica by Zane should be in the same section as the Best Erotica of 2010 compilation. Some Toni Morrison needs to be rubbing shoulders with Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. I should be able to get The Broke Diaries and Prozac Nation without going from one end of the bookstore to the other. I wouldn’t expect Angela’s Ashes to be in a separate section for Irish-American Literature.

So, there. I’m calling bookstores out. I’m putting you “on front street.” I know you all are having big problems now that eReaders have cropped up and the magazine market took a nosedive. But I still believe in bookstores. I just want the bookstore to be a little more colorblind. When I debut my first book, I don’t want it shoved in the back corner in the Black Literature section, but upfront in the new releases, then eventually back in fiction…or memoir, depending which book I release first. Thanks.

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One thought on “My Love/Hate Relationship with the AA Lit Section

  1. This was an interesting post to me, because I didn’t even know there was a such thing as an African-American section at the bookstore. (Not that it matters, but you might have guessed that I’m not African-American.)

    My first thought when I read that there is an AA section was that it seemed like biblio-segregation. I don’t understand why AA would have it’s own section, but other races don’t (you hit on this when you commented that Angela’s Ashes isn’t in an Irish-American section.)

    I would never choose to read (or not to read) a book based on the author’s race – I’m looking for a good story. That’s all. Perhaps if the books were categorized strictly by genre I would be able to recall at least one AA author that I’ve read. Unfortunately, I cannot.

    Thanks for opening my eyes.

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