Reading, Writing, and Race

May 30, 2010

Credited to N. K. Jemisin

I read a blog post online a little while ago about the African American section of the bookstore. I mentioned it in a post a few days ago but I wanted to get a little further into what I means to me. It was a post that really resonated with me a lot as a person and a reader and would-be writer. I’ll give you a little background about me first to help explain.

Growing up my father was in the military so we moved around a lot and I was influenced by a lot of different peoples and cultures around the world. I’ve lived in Germany, Italy, Virginia, New York, and more. My father is black and my mother is Korean. I’ve grown up eating grits as well as kimchi. Most of my friends tended to be white, Korean, or Hispanic, just because that whom we tended to live around at my father’s different stations. I never really knew other black people aside from a couple of my dad’s friends, my god-sister, and my dad’s family that we didn’t get to see too often as they lived in the states as we traveled. Most of my ‘aunts’ were my mom’s Korean friends that I called ‘imo’. I call myself black, purely because of those forms in school when I was younger that had you designate a race and only let you pick one, regardless of your background. And those little ‘multiracial’ options didn’t pop up until I was in high school. By then it was already ingrained, even though I try to break myself of this even to this day. I didn’t find this odd this was just normal.

My dad’s last assignment took us to Georgia, where I live now, and where I was introduced to the largest population of blacks I had ever been amongst before that point. It was a different from what I was used to growing up, both the black culture here as well as the Southern culture in general. Which is different from up North as many people can tell you that have been to both. I’d never actually seen the racial stereotype in person until we moved to Georgia. There were guys with their pants down showing their underwear, people cursing in normal conversation left and right, cars driving down the street blasting music so with the bass so loud you can’t even tell what’s playing. Yes, everything you’ve seen on TV really does happen. I was surprised too.

This was a bit difficult for me to get used to. I didn’t really listen to the type of music that was prevalent among the black population here, I didn’t wear the popular clothes, I didn’t speak the vernacular or slang. I tend to be a very adaptable person because I’ve had to be but it was a bit harder for me here. It did make it easier when I found the other kids that were Army brats like me though, so it was something that I overcame. And slowly but surely I found my place and my voice. I speak clear English (but sometimes I have a bit of a Southern accent :P), I understand the slang even if I tend not to use it, I listen to all types of music from rap (loooove Eminem) to rock to pop to hip hop, and my hair stylist is the love of my life every time I see her every two months.

Now, what does this have to do with what I started this post about? Books. I read all kinds of books from different genres, books that tend to be written by Caucasian writers with Caucasian characters. This is because this is what is out there in the majority. I’ve been okay with that because the books I like to read don’t focus on the race or the color, but the people and the story. It just happens that most of the characters are white because that is what is being published. I know this now, but when I was younger it wasn’t as clear.

There is a section in libraries and book stores that tends to be labeled ‘African American Interest’ or something similar. I’ve never been to this section, I’ve never planned to look at this section, and I really, really dislike this section. This is not a rant against African American writers in the least. On the contrary, this is a rant on the perpetuation of racism and racial segregation in the world today. What is the necessity for this section? What exactly does “African American Interest” even mean? Why is it necessary to put all of these different books in this section even if they have nothing in common with each other, other than the race of the author? And of course fairly recently there have been ‘Asian Interest’ and ‘Latino Interest’ sections popping up in bookstores as if that makes is better. This is just separating everyone even more!

Going to bookstores when I was younger I was always so interested in the written word and what people had to say. I had all of these stories in my head that I wanted to write down, but I was too shy to do so. This was partly because I saw all of these books by mostly white authors that wrote about white characters in the main section of the bookstore, and then all of the black authors writing about black characters on one little bookshelf in the store. And most of those books by black authors were about ‘baby mamas’ and gangbangers and the ghetto, with men on the covers with braids and no shirt or women that look like strippers. I’m sure that there were plenty of black writers with great voices out there writing real literature, but this other crap was so prevalent and out there that it was the only thing I saw, so I stayed away. I was not interested in being hit over the head with the black stereotype every time I opened a book or even looked at the cover. I can’t relate and I refuse to pander to the expectations of publishers about my race.

And for a long while I figured that was the only thing that, as a black person, I could and should write about. But I didn’t know about those things nor did I want to. I couldn’t write what I’d never experienced or didn’t believe in. So I didn’t. I stopped trying to write down my stories and making up characters because the stories and characters I came up with were more ‘mainstream’ than what other black writers were publishing. My stories were about magic and fantasy or even romance in historical eras, things that I saw in the books that I was reading by mainstream or white writers. It was very heartbreaking to me in a way. I just felt that what I had to share wouldn’t be welcomed by the community as a whole, purely because of my race.

I’m now 25, almost 26 and as an adult I know more now than I did then. I know that racism very real, even in the publishing world and I was probably right back then. Even today, in 2010, there are great writers of minority races that won’t be published because of the content of their books. Because they aren’t writing what is considered to be right for their own race, not the population as a whole. Just because someone is black doesn’t mean they have to write purely for the black population. But unfortunately this is how it’s still seen even today. And even African American publishing companies are taking advantage of this stereotype which just makes this all even sadder.

I get scared sometimes that I’ve lost my voice. That the stories that used to come to me so easily are now lost because I purposely suppressed them, encouraged by society as a whole to be ‘normal’ for my race or at least be quiet about it. I don’t write like I used to. The words don’t come to me now and when they do come I tend to second-guess them. It’s hard for me to create these worlds in my head that used to flourish there constantly. I want to write about things that interest me, stories that I care about, not what publishers expect to hear from a ‘person of my race or type’. I am not box on a piece of paper and my words should not be relegated to a certain shelf purely because of what I look like.


One comment

  1. Thanks for writing this. As a Puerto Rican fiction writer, I’ve come across the same sentiment. Once, in my last year of school I took a class on Latino lit and basically had every other student in the class attack me (verbally) when I asked if there were any books with Latino characters that weren’t drug addicts or gang bangers. I was called naive and told I was in denial about how “my people” were, which struck me as funny since my own parents, a teacher and an electrician had gotten married, had a family, owned a house, etc.

    Good for you that you are still writing- and writing the stories that you have inside you to write, not what others assume you should write.

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