Blog: The Importance of Black Literature (Originally published in 2000)
Taken from The Hush Hush Secrets of Writing Fiction That Sells
By Dr. Maxine Thompson
Although this is officially African American Music Appreciation month, I’d like to address something of equal importance—Black Literature. As an African American literary agent of over 13 years, and an editor of numerous bestselling Black novels and nonfiction for almost twenty years, I’m seeing a slowing of sales of Black books, which concerns me.
As authors of the African Diaspora, we can never get complacent. We need to continue to find ways to gain discoverability of our books. With the closing of Black book stores, the end of The Black Expressions Book Club (which was the Black equivalent of the Doubleday Book Club,) the rise of social media, and many other factors which have impacted our book sales, we have to continue to be creative. As African Americans, there is a reason we need to continue to write. Literature is a repository of our culture.
When I indie published my first novel, The Ebony Tree, in 1995, I’ll never forget how I found out later that my then, 23-year-old niece ran through the house and screamed with laughter, after she read the book. Now mind you, my niece had always been an avid reader of white romance novels since her early teens, but reading my book was like landing on Mars for her. She reportedly asked her mother, “Mama, did Aunt Maxine make this up? Did you guys actually ‘play white’?”
My sister-in-law told her, “Not only did we play white, we dreamed in white. All we ever saw in the books or on TV were white characters. It seemed like they had all the fun.”
Typically, most African Americans who grew up in the 50’s had pictures on the wall of white Jesus, white Santa Claus and even white angels. There was nothing in the media or in books that reflected the beauty of blackness. Needless to say, if there were any books beside the Bible, they were not Black books. It sent a silent message that Black was ugly and white was beautiful. This was as negative of an experience as when reading was forbidden to slaves.
Fast forward almost half a century. I know from rearing my children, who are now adults, that having had African American books and paintings in the home was, and remains, a good influence on their self-esteem and confidence. When a person sees himself reflected in the literature he or she reads, it indirectly helps build a better self-image. For in literature, we find our role models, our archetypes from which we can learn life lessons.
More specifically, in African American literature, the stories are relevant to the Black experience in this country. These experiences range from people coming from different socio-economic classes, from varying urban to country regions, to different professions. We often get the Alger Horatio rags-to-riches story to its reversal, the riches-to-rags story. Most of these stories make social commentaries on how we all play a part in the symphony of the American Dream.
“Black Writers on The Rise,” the headlines screamed and I believed them. At the time, we had a few growing websites, such as AALBC.com, and Black literature magazines such as Black Issues (now defunct, where my publishing company was featured in the July-August 2000 issue; then, in April 2001, my eBook company was featured in Black Enterprises), so I was encouraged.
After all, seeing the different genres of African American books in the local, predominantly Black book stores scattered throughout the LA area, (now, many of which have closed), when I attended my first Book Expo of America (formerly the Book Association of America) held in Los Angeles, California in late April 1999, I thought we had arrived. But I was in for a rude awakening. I had been lulled into a false sense of complacency that we, as African American writers, were being published at the same rate as mainstream books.
To say the least, I was disillusioned. Yes, The Book Expo of 1999 was a big eye-opener. The bad news was this: Our problems (as African American writers) were far from over. When I compared the books represented by the major publishers, I saw that the percentage of Black books was infinitesimally small compared to that of other races.
Not one to be a soothsayer, but I felt the number of African American books could disappear like they did after the Harlem Renaissance, after the late 40’s, and after the Revolutionary 60’s, if we didn’t take control of our own written words.
To that end, I launched the Maxine Thompson Literary Services in late 1998, where I began to edit African American literature. In 2002, I began hosting an Internet radio show for authors, which I have continued down to this day on Artistfirst.com. In 2003, I launched Maxine Thompson Literary Agency.
Even then, I saw the good news was this. The increase in the number of African American books could be attributed, by and large, not only to more Black publishing companies, Black editors and literary agents, but to indie-published books. Given the advent of desktop publishing, the Internet, more Black book clubs, then later, eBooks, IPhone, social media, many writers were taking control of our destines and empowering ourselves by publishing our own stories.
So consider these questions. What are other ways having more Black books have helped? Is it easier to get published by mainstream in 2016? Have things improved for us as Black writers, since the late 1980’s?
From the standpoint of a literary agent, I must say this.The picture is not as bright as things were before the recession of 2008.
Therefore, I’m coming up with new ways to market in a tight publishing market. But my answer is “Never give up.”
Why is indie-publishing so important, particularly for Black writers, if you can’t get your books published by mainstream?
To encourage other writers to pen their stories, here are some of the good things Black literature has brought to this country.
1. Salvation. We can redeem ourselves if we know enough about others who have gone through the fire.
2. Continuity with your ancestors. We have something no other nationality or race in America has—a history of slavery. This impacts our writing as does racism, discrimination, and third-class citizenship.
3. A reading audience who is eager to see stories that reflect their reality.
4. A way of restoring history which was not allowed to be written down in the past.
5. A way of lifting up the next generation through the printed word, in addition to our oral tradition, which is reflected in rap, Hip Hop, and Poetry.
6. A way of promoting racial understanding for other ethnic groups. Personally, I learn
a lot about other parts of the Diaspora when I read books by Haitian Americans, (Farming of the Bones, Edwidge Danticat) or when I read Chinese American literature, (Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan) or any other culture’s literature. (Remember I wrote this around 2000.)
Once, a teacher told me at a book signing, that a study was done at her school. It was found that all the little Black girls said that their image of beauty was still a blond, blue-eyed child or doll. Imagine! This was December 1999! (Sad to say, I understand things have not changed much since then, almost 20 years later.)
It reminded me of the tragic tale in Toni Morrison’s book, The Bluest Eye, where the scourged Black child, Pecola, went insane, all because she wanted blue eyes. This book’s setting was circa 1940.
My point is this. If we keep writing our stories down, we, as African American writers, may not ever have parity in the world of books. But, at the same time, we won’t have another generation of little Black girls playing white, like my friends and I did, with scarves and towels draped over our hair, which we felt wasn’t beautiful enough. Or perhaps, we won’t have little girls going crazy like the fictional Pecola did.
About the blogger:
Dr. Maxine Thompson is a novelist, poet, columnist, short story writer, book reviewer, an editor, ghostwriter, Internet Radio Show Host, and a Literary Agent. She is the author of Novels, The Ebony Tree, Hostage of Lies, LA Blues, LA Blues 2, and LA Blues 3, A Place Called Home (A Short Story Collection), The Hush Hush Secrets of Writing Fiction That Sell, a contributor to bestselling anthologies Secret Lovers, (A Black Expression Bestseller) All in The Family, and Never Knew Love Like This Before, (Also a Black Expression Book Club, and Kindle Bestseller).
She is also an ebook author of The Hush Hush Secrets of Writing Fiction That Sell 1, 2, The Hush Hush Secrets of Making Money as a Writer, The Hush Hush Secrets of Creating a Life You Love, a contributor to bestselling anthologies Secret Lovers, All in The Family, and Never Knew Love Like This Before, (Also a Kindle Bestseller). Proverbs for the People, and Editor/Contributor to anthology, Saturday Morning.
Her novels, The Ebony Tree, (Won a Pen Award in 1997), Hostage of Lies, (Voted a Best Book of 2009), LA Blues, (2011), and LA Blues II, (2012), which were featured in Black Expressions’ Catalog in August 2012.