Books in the hood

Courtenay Aja Barton says Bed-Stuy’s authors “hustle[] books like drug dealers hustled crack here in the 80’s.”

On weekdays, I take the train into Midtown Manhattan for my recent-college-grad office job. On the subway, I am surrounded by teenagers and young adults from my neighborhood reading books with titles like “Keisha,” “Dollar Outta Fifteen Cent,” “Life’s a Bitch” — Hood Books.

What if we were to judge them by their covers? At best, they look like still shots from a slick hip hop video; at worst, they look like still shots from a low-budget hip hop video. There may or may not be a glass or bottle of alcohol, a sexy and scantily clad woman, a pimped-out car, a pile of crisp green cash. Critics could say the same thing about Hood Books that they do about hip hop videos: that they present a dangerous caricature of Black American culture; that they demean women; that they promote materialism — in short, that they are what is wrong with the youth of America….

When I was a ghetto child, I read books like “Gone With the Wind,” “The Grapes of Wrath”: undeniably great works of literature, but ones that called Black people names like nigger and darky nonetheless. I read those books more times than I can recall, and the subtle messages encoded in those small, sharp words cut like glass and embedded themselves in my consciousness. They made me feel my Blackness, and yet by reading them somehow I was “acting white”.

I was extremely self-conscious during my high school years. I took refuge in Black literature. I read Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, and Zora Neale Hurston. Then in college, I took classes in Black literature. I discovered Black male writers, like Baldwin, Wright, and Haley.

Now I find myself asking the following question: What is the difference between a hood book and, say, “Native Son”? What is the difference between a hood writer and Richard Wright? Is it the name of the author or the quality of the writing?

Meanwhile, even though she “pulled over on the curb and cried until I choked” when Toni Morrison won the Nobel, Tayari Jones looks at that NY Times best-of list and can’t help but wonder: “Is it me, or does a Black writer need to write about slavery to get ‘on the map’?”

Update: Dana points me to Brendan I. Koerner’s search for the author of Candy Licker, “a hit among aficionados of street lit.”


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