We Need More Southern African American Writers

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We Need More Southern African American Writers

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oct. 9, 2015, 2:02pm

But where are they?

One of the reasons I started this group is that I was surprised that while we LT-ers enthusiastically spent so much time discussing books and the majority of that time speaking specifically about our personal reading and libraries, there didn't seem to be major space devoted to the other (more significant, IMO) half of the book formula -- their creators. If you want additional proof for why I think this way, I refer you to this part of our Group's -- for lack of a better expression -- Mission Statement.

Writers form us with their words, be they the stuff of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or plays. As much as the works they create we are also the creations of the writers whom we read.

As a consequence of my convictions, some concerns arise in my mind about the state of American Letters. Where are black characters in mainstream fiction? Can white writers write credible works with black protagonists? Do contemporary African American writers worry about how not to ghettoize or "ruralize" their settings so they can write about mainstream black characters? And then this. . .

Is there or is there not any meaning or portent in demographic statistics when they're regarded through the lens of literature? (All figures from QuickFacts.) Consider: African Americans are just over 13% of the US population, yet what percentage of all American writers are African American? A quick consult with Wiki reveals no more than an estimated few hundred living and dead; nowhere representative of their numbers in the population as I'm willing to bet "Anglo" (white English-speaking) writers exist (disregard the dead authors) in proportion to their population.

Further demographic inquiry shows that of the 13+% black population, fully 55% (according to the '10 census) live in the South, only a 1% increase over the '00 census figure. The Mid-West ranks second in concentration of African Americans. Only 1 in 10 lives in the West The majority of blacks live in only 10 states. We see that the narrow distribution may contribute to narrowing the range of experience, setting, perhaps even themes investigated by black writers.

We cannot escape the fact that the history of past slavery and present racism are fundamental informers of African American writing. Fear and anger, pride and shame, ambition and destruction -- in short desire and trouble, the basic stuff of fiction remain the basis of all fiction, but almost all African American writing is refracted through the element of historical and ongoing racial discrimination they have endured in a dominant white society. Especially in the South.

So, if our writers are forming factors in our lives, even a casual observer sees that the country's writing landscape is bereft of African American writers addressing the mainstream of the African American population who are Southerners, living on at least $30,000 less annually than white households, having 5 years shorter life-expectancy, and seeing fewer of their children reach adulthood.

These are all depressing points to consider. But they may be less daunting when we recall how writers over and over throughout history have influenced society to improve and better people's lives and living conditions. Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, Dickens, Stowe, Douglass, Lewis, Steinbeck, and King to name a handful. There is every reason to believe that when more Southern African Americans begin writing the stories most relevant to their largest demographic, they will find a new and wide audience of black and white readers, give neglected populations much needed attention, and bring them to the attention of influential readers able to effect change.

There are so many mainstream stories that haven't been written and that need to be. Isn't it time to serve a profoundly under served potential reading public that might be on the sidelines only because their lives' stories don't seem to matter sufficiently to black and white writers and publishers? This is only speculation, of course. But where, at least, are African American Southern writers in the successful and popular mainstream genre of Southern Fiction?

They are sorely needed in greater numbers to contribute the powerful untold stories that Americans are waiting for on their reading journey to finding out who we are.

oct. 9, 2015, 3:08pm

On the spot I've tried to think of authors who might qualify, and can only quickly name James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison ... see, I'm fading already ... Alice Walker .... now I'm really struggling ... and I'm not sure which of those four qualify as southern.

I did think of one white author especially heralded for her portrayal of a black man: Carson McCullers

oct. 9, 2015, 3:43pm

Is "Southern Fiction" as a genre perhaps defined in a way that would exclude black writers? The history and the culture of the American South is so different for black people that, no matter where it's from or how it's written, I have to question whether a black man from Atlanta writing about experiences like his own could possibly be considered as writing "Southern Fiction" with the capitals.
Does it matter, though? I'm white, I have absolutely zero place telling black people what I think they should be writing, or that the best way for them to combat racism is to write stories that white people want to read.

(Baldwin lived in New York City and in France, so certainly wouldn't be considered southern.)

As for Do contemporary African American writers worry about how not to ghettoize or "ruralize" their settings so they can write about mainstream black characters?, I'll confess to being baffled. The black population of the US is much, much more heavily urbanized than the white population, to the point that "urban" is used as code for "black" by people trying to conceal their racism. So I'm afraid I don't at all understand why black writers would be concerned about being inclined to "ruralize" their characters. Help?

oct. 9, 2015, 5:32pm

>3 lorax:

Maybe you're on the trail of making a good point. Why should the "Southern Fiction" genre label exclude Southern African American writers? Can't it be re-defined to be more inclusive?

Another issue you suggest (hint at?) is that white authors are hardly the ones to write about the black experience. Yet we have no problem with white authors writing about other races -- even alien ones. Do you/we feel this way because of the history of slavery, segregation, and racism in this country? Did the more militant elements of the Civil rights Movement in the 60s make white voices irrelevant to black readers?

I notice a lot of cross cultural writing and reading of blacks and whites of Romance genre, exploring interracial relationships. So, I presume (mistakenly?) that the readership and authorship are both blacks and whites. I'm aware of one black woman writer in Sci/Fi/Fan genres. Do white readers feel she can't tell a story they'd want to read?

I guess genre fiction is "safe" for the races to tell their stories to one another but mainstream fiction, in particular, is not? Should or shouldn't that change? What about The Secret Life of Bees and The Help --both by white women, but heavily about African American lives in the South. Why can't black women or men write those stories?

The idea of ghettoized writing being limiting to black authors comes from a WaPo essay by Bernice McFadden published 5 years ago. Black writers in a ghetto of the publishing industry's making.

And an interview in The Guardian from September this year, Black characters are still revolutionary.
I recall no moment when I said “I don’t want to write black”. But when I did write a black (again, male) protagonist in a novella in college, he lived in the hood (which I had not) and was grappling with a brother who was running the streets. I came to view black fiction as either “urban”, as in the street tale in my novella, or “rural”, as in Alice Walker and Toni Morrison – which I greatly admired, but felt more like the world of my country-raised mother than mine. -- Tananarive Due

Editat: oct. 9, 2015, 5:40pm

>2 Cecrow:

Baldwin was a New Yorker, at least until he moved to France, not southern at all. Nor is Toni Morrison, who is from Ohio. Ellison was born in Oklahoma, so closer.

Of those you name, only Alice Walker is a true child of the south, being from Georgia.

Zora Neale Hurston was a southerner, from Alabama and later Florida, though she was attended college and grad school in NYC.

Editat: oct. 10, 2015, 5:01pm

Some Southerner African American writers:

Charles W. Chestnutt (not my favorite, but he did write what I think might have been the first novelization of the Wilmington Race Riots of 1898, The Marrow of Tradition. His best known work is The Conjure Woman, which I've never read.

Maya Angelou needs no introduction.

Natasha Tretheway, former US Poet Laureate. Read Thrall first.

T. Geronimo Johnson, his Welcome to Braggsville is searing and funny

Jesmyn Ward is best known for Salvage the Bones but her memoir Men We Reaped is unforgettable.

Charles M Blow has a memoir Fire in My Bones, but he's also a columnist in the vein of Ta-Nehisi Coates

Tayari Jones is an Atlanta-based novelist, her most recent book is Silver Sparrow, I think.

Alice Randall is not a southerner by birth, but she lives in the south now. She's a songwriter as well as a novelist. The book people usually remember from her is Wind Done Gone -- Gone with the Wind from the point of view of Rhett Butler's slave concubine. I read it, and remember thinking that an otherwise interesting story was doomed to be eclipsed by the comparisons to Mitchell it invited.

Nikki Finney Known mostly as a poet, but she writes short stories too. Amazing writer. Just amazing. Head Off & Split is the last I read.

Crystal Wilkinson is a novelist and poet ... and also a bookstore owner! She opened Wild Fig Books in Lexington, KY. She shows up in anthologies all the time but I think her novels are out of print. Water Street is the one I remember best.

Lalita Tademy might also deserve a mention here. She's not southern by birth, but her family is southern -- western Louisiana. She came to national attention when her book Cane River was chosen by Oprah for her book club. But she's written stuff since then. Last year was Citizen Creek.

...hardly a comprehensive list.

As far as writing "authentically" -- the purpose of the artist is to make us understand what it is to be another person. So surely they must be possessed of an imagination that allows them to live in the world from another's body, so to speak. It's not that being white "disqualifies" you -- any more than being female disqualifies you from writing male characters. It's a question of knowing what your boundaries and limitations are, and being able to move beyond the prison of your own assumptions.

ETA: Oh my god, I forgot Randall Kenan I love his writing! Visitation of Spirits, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, and he edited an anthology of African American writing, Walking on Water: Black American Lives

Editat: oct. 12, 2015, 9:28am

Chester Himes was born in Missouri. Would that count? He wrote If He Hollers Let Him Go and is generally known for his crime novels, but I believe he set many of his novels in New York City.

There are certainly many fewer African American authors than there should be.

oct. 12, 2015, 9:40am

>4 Limelite:

Another issue you suggest (hint at?) is that white authors are hardly the ones to write about the black experience.

Not at all! I'm suggesting that white readers shouldn't demand that black writers write the stories we want to read rather than the ones they want to tell, especially with the implication from your post (which was presumably unintentional) that if only they would do so, white eyes would be opened and racism would be over.

However, there's no one "black experience", which illustrates part of the peril that's always there when writing about people unlike you; you need to work at it. You should still do it, but be aware that you won't necessarily get it right.

You do realize that many people have criticized The Help for foregrounding white people while claiming to discuss black experiences, and for making the only people who act racist so over-the-top that it avoids any potentially uncomfortable discussion of systemic racism and of racist acts other than the most blatant? So I hardly think it's a good example of Doing It Right.

oct. 12, 2015, 10:09pm

No, my examples are neither intended to represent the best out there nor to reflect my tastes. But they are titles put forward by African American writers.

IMO, the best mainstream novel by a white writer centered on the black experience post-WWII is Andrew Sean Greer's the Story of a Marriage. The best by a black writer is probably Toni Morrison's Home.

Yes, I do wonder if black novels have been in some way restricted because of racism they've been subjected to. That's why I think it's important for American letters to see expansion and growth from more black writers who tell the mainstream stories that I believe are waiting to be told and that are wanted by African American readers.

I'm not suggesting that stories with the themes that have dominated African American literature to this day should not be written, I'm just looking for more different-from-the past-books. And I'm wondering, as are some black writers (links), where the authors of those stories are. And, being Southern, I'm especially interested in contemporary Southern black writers. In short, I want more Jesmyn Wards, not fewer.

But my main point is that in proportion to their numbers and demographics profile, African Americans are underrepresented by black writers. Period.

nov. 8, 2015, 2:45am

There is also Ravi Howard and the late Frank Yerby. Yerby was the first African-American to have a novel sell more than a million copies according to his biography.

feb. 2, 2016, 3:56pm

I hope that you all will read my new book Birds of Opulence which will hit stores March 7. Blackberries, Blackberries and Water Street are not out of print but will have new life when they are reprinted in the Spring. Thanks for mentioning me on this list.

feb. 2, 2016, 4:01pm

>11 CrystalWilkinson: I will refrain from flagging your post as you were explicitly mentioned, but self-promotion is not allowed on LT. It would be in your interests to read http://www.librarything.com/about/authors

feb. 2, 2016, 8:19pm

>12 .Monkey.:

Oh dear, I'm afraid we've been visited by a spider gathering up name mentions on the InterTubz. Then it goes home and spins a silky form thread by way of acknowledgment.

feb. 2, 2016, 8:24pm

Dear Readers:

If you can get the CD audiobook of Toni Morrison reading her book, A Mercy, please do. What a pleasure to listen to her unique reading style. I can't imagine listening to anyone else narrating to her level of perfection.

The story is a no-holds-barred look at slavery's early history in Colonial America of the 17th C. I found it compelling and engrossing.

feb. 3, 2016, 9:27am

>1 Limelite:
A few hundred? I'm not sure that counting only those "who already have Wikipedia articles" gives an accurate estimate of living African-American writers. Amd what do we mean by 'writers'? Bobby Seale has written two books but isn't listed. I'm acquainted with three black poets who aren't on that list. There must be hundreds of poets, story writers, playwrights, screenwriters, lyricists, etc out there in the trenches (workshops, journals, online, etc) who don't appear in the Amazon-Wikipedia nexus, though they may do someday...

feb. 4, 2016, 8:25am

Ironic that in a post in which people bemoan the lack of African American writers, when one posts about her book her post is flagged and she is warned she will be banned.
Um, if you want to know about books by African American authors, why isn't one welcome to post about her book?

feb. 4, 2016, 9:03am

>16 bostonbibliophile:

Because promoting books in groups other than Hobnob is a violation of the TOS. And that applies to everyone.

feb. 4, 2016, 9:12am

It's a borderline case, isn't it. I wouldn't have minded so much in this context (she was cited, as Monkey says, and was correcting the statement that she's out of print), but it does look as though she googled her own name and just dropped by long enough to advertise, then gone again. I'd be most lenient with authors who are here to participate in and contribute to the LT community.

feb. 4, 2016, 9:24am

Crystal Wilkinson does indeed have a new book coming out -- I've been in contact with her publisher as part of my day job (and I'm definitely going to read it), and I would guess that "googling" is part of the kind of pre-pub prep that goes into any new release.

feb. 4, 2016, 10:44am

>17 lilithcat: >18 Cecrow:
I'm not very tolerant of author spamming but I agree that in this case we practically invited her in. I'd give her a pass.

feb. 4, 2016, 12:05pm

>20 Crypto-Willobie:

I'm not saying not to give her a pass. But >16 bostonbibliophile: wanted to know why someone would flag that post, so I answered the question.

I think much of the problem people had with it is that we tend to have a low tolerance for "drive-by authors".

feb. 4, 2016, 1:11pm

feb. 7, 2016, 2:05pm

>23 Crypto-Willobie:

thanks for the link. I read the article and here's my take-away about the who and why of Chris jackson.
‘‘The great tradition of black art, generally,’’ he started again, ‘‘is the ability — unlike American art in general — to tell the truth. Because it was formed around the great American poison, the thing that poisoned American consciousness and behavior: racism. And black culture, such as it is, was formed around a necessary resistance to this fundamental lie.

There's a related article linked to the essay that seems somewhat ironic to the quote:


When asking for more AA writers, must remember to request more AA editors and publishers in the industry, too.

feb. 7, 2016, 3:13pm

>24 Limelite: And thank you for that link.

A few minor adjustments to Cunningham's observations...

"Paradoxically, Rock relied on the work of white artists to make his quiet argument. At every available opportunity, Rock implied (and often asserted outright) the artistic debt of “Top Five” to the likes of Louis C.K., Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld and, above all others, Woody Allen. "
Of course one of these is half-Mexican and the other three are Jewish, a kind of outsider-white who once had their own ghetto (and in some ways still do).

"The Younger family of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” — crammed into a tiny, worn apartment, harassed for their hope to move to a better (and whiter) neighborhood — would most likely give anything to trade troubles with Eugene O’Neill’s Tyrones, who in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” struggle with intangibles: dissatisfaction and vague regret.
Dissatisfaction and vague regret? How about morphine addiction, alcoholism and tuberculosis?

feb. 24, 2016, 5:33pm

Hope this isn't considered self-promotion, but I must step into this ring. I am so Southern, I cannot believe I'm not on this list!! Georgia girl who writes about middle Georgia. Mulberry, Georgia, specifically. Also missing from this list is Bernice McFadden, a lyrical writer whose people are from my hometown and lives in New York.
Okay. All best.

feb. 24, 2016, 10:03pm

>26 TinaMcElroyAnsa:

Excellent post. Bernice McFadden is a well known and highly acclaimed author of several novels; however she's not Southern. Not that we hold that against her!

Tina McElroy Ansa, you most definitely belong on the list! McElroy Ansa is known for a series of novels set in the fictional town of Mulberry, GA. Ansa's first novel, Baby of the Family, was named a Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times. Read more about her here.

feb. 26, 2016, 10:07am

>26 TinaMcElroyAnsa:


This is, IMO, how to do it right as an author on LT - you can mention your own books in a relevant context, and mentioning someone else's as well is a great way to show you're contributing to the discussion in good faith.

març 2, 2016, 10:23am

Thanks, limelite. Even at my age, I'm still the baby. Gotta love me. :) I'm about to get on road. Of course, I have a few more comments and a question. I'll be back. Best!

març 2, 2016, 10:29am

Thank you. It's a joy to be connected so easily to readers, critics, scholars, writers and, of course, librarians. I'll be back. Best!