Since I wrote in TheRoot.com last year about why we should use the "L" word when describing black literary works, I've been thinking more about the need to name things. Do we really need to be so overt? No one ever sees signs that say, "literary white fiction", after all.
Yet, when I'm driving upstate with my family along a familiar highway, I often see those bright orange detour signs that let you know the road is under construction, that changes are going on, and that you have to turn here to get where you want to go.
That's how I think of black literary works these days -- under construction. It's not like it was, back in the day when the very fact that a black writer was published meant that a vetting process had occurred and the work was of a certain ambition and quality. Morrison, Walker, Baldwin, Bambara, et al,, had to be good or their books wouldn't be in print. Not so true now. All kinds of black books are getting published -- literary, yes, but also pulp fiction, genre fiction, popular and street. Some of that work is ambitious and some of it's not. So how does a reader inch through the pile up?
Labeling something as "black literary fiction/non-fiction" is a corrective, a temporary measure for the particular times that we're in. Just like on a highway, at some point the signs will be removed when the new thing is in place. Meanwhile signage helps. It helps the reader navigate a bookstore; it helps the bookstore promote certain kinds of work; it helps young African American writers aspire to have their own books in that section of the bookstore; it helps professors of AA lit discover new books they can add to their syllabi; and it helps publishers clarify what it is they're publishing. Voila! Everyone's expectations get managed.
I think of labeling as a navigational device, a GPS of black literary works.
RingShout itself is a road sign. We want to identify ambitious work by black writers so there's no mystery about what it is, no claim that it doesn't exist or can't be found, no excuse to let it linger on the shadowy back roads of our culture.
I certainly wish, as an emerging writer, I'd had some kind of tool to help me navigate my way -- nothing like a good road sign to get you where you want to go. Or need to be.
Bridgett M. Davis
Cloister Ekphrastic Free Verse
4 months ago