Early this year, a reader wrote in to express her dismay at finding her favorite African American writers’ books sequestered in a special Barnes & Noble section. Hot on her heels came another reader, a former bookstore employee, who argued that outrage over special sections for writers of color is endemic to white readers, and that most readers of black writers prefer the separation. Discussion ensued.
Today Tayari Jones, an acclaimed African American writer, contributes a nuanced, informed look at the issue.
A few months ago, I wrote an essay that looked at the African American sections in bookstores like Borders. When I wrote it, just weeks before the publication of my second novel, The Untelling, I believed that these segregated sections were likely the only way that African American authors would reach the readers that are willing (and even eager!) to purchase our books.
I cited such anecdotal evidence as the listing on Amazon, which suggested that people who purchased my books also purchased other books, not just by black authors, but by black female authors. It seemed that even online, where there are no “sections,” people who looked at my books did so because they like books by black authors. No color blindness there. Then I looked up a couple of books by my white authors, and on their Amazon pages I saw that their readers had also bought books by other white authors. It seemed to me that this was an open and shut case.
But then, something happened: I went on tour to promote The Untelling. Luckily, Warner Books assigned my novel to Linda Duggins, one of the best (and highest ranking) African American publicists in the business. On my own, I hired Lauren Cerand, an Anglo-American who specializes in event bookings and online publicity. The combined efforts of these very smart and very different women put The Untelling in the hands of a wide swath of the literary community.
I visited black bookstores like Marcus Books in Oakland, and “mainstream” stores like A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco. Valerie Boyd reviewed The Untelling for the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Susan Straight covered it for The Believer. I hit the women’s book circuit, reading at Charis Books in Atlanta and Bluestockings in New York City. A few weeks ago, I published an Op-Ed in The New York Times. As a result of these varied efforts, The Untelling has worked an uncommon mojo: it has found readers in all different sectors of the reading population.
I am surprised and pleased — as are many of my new readers. Their letters often begin with a disclosure of their race and/or gender. “I am a white man, but I really enjoyed your book” or “I’m not black but your book really touched me.” Often they explain the string of coincidences which caused them to read this book of mine, a work that they wouldn’t have read except for these extraordinary circumstances. I answer all the mail I receive because I really do believe that literature is universal. I want to encourage these readers to keep reading work by women and people of color. I don’t want to be the Great Exception on anyone’s bookshelf. I want to start something.
This takes me back to the bookstore question. With the increased readership, I find myself wondering what would happen if my book were shelved differently. Right now, you’ll find The Untelling in The Colored Section, cozy between Yolanda Joe and Benilde Little. Now that I have managed to make a little bit of my name for myself, I would probably get more action if I were shelved in the “literature” section right in the front of the store instead of in a separate section, three aisles back.
Arundati Roy gave an inspired address called “Do Turkeys Really Enjoy Thanksgiving?,” in which she mocked the American custom of the president choosing one turkey who receives a pardon and is spared the chopping block on Thanksgiving Day. She likens those of us who enjoy privilege to those pardoned turkeys, while the rest of the flock is trucked away to the slaughterhouses.
What I wrote in my first essay is still true. For most African American writers, this section is the only way that they will connect with the browsers, the mostly African American readers who go out of their way to read books by black authors. I have read the arguments against these sections, usually by white readers who were looking for the work of some famous black author like Toni Morrison and were dismayed to be led to The Colored Section. Each time I read such an account, I am painfully aware that the reader has been browsing the bookstore for years before noticing that the “literature” section is all white.
So where does this leave me? In many ways, I am a pardoned turkey, as are the other African American authors who have reached a “wider audience.” You can always spot our books; there will be no brown faces on the cover. If you peek at most of the books in the Colored Section at Borders, you will see the difference. The cover models are unambiguously black. They seem to be beckoning to the African-American reader: Here we are!
The dismantling of the Colored Section may help a writer like me. Front and center at Borders, The Untelling could catch the eye of “mainstream” readers who have heard my name before or seen the book reviewed in the major dailies. But where would this leave the other authors who rely so heavily on the browsers of The Colored Section?
Ultimately, I am in favor of the color-blind shelving of books. As I said before, literature is universal. However, keep the Colored Section where it is. Let us call for the overthrow of racism, prejudice, and even indifference that makes such sections necessary. I know that placement is said to be everything in the bookstore game, but do we really believe that the reason so few writers of color reach that “mainstream” audience is that their books are not displayed in the “literature” section? Let us steer our attention away from Borders’ shelving practices and take a longer look at ourselves.