Wednesday, June 19, 2013

I Just Wish It Would All Just Disappear: The New York Observer Explores "Thug Lit" and Questions of Black Authenticity

A few months ago I stood in my windowless, dimly lit classroom in Jamaica, Queens, a working-class neighborhood in New York City, and asked my new students, who were black and West Indian 20-something-year-olds from all over the borough, to tell me something about themselves. How often did they read novels? Who were their favorite authors? Hands flew up. A slim, unsmiling girl with wild hair pulled into a ponytail, spoke first. 
“I love to read. Right now, I read at least four books a week.” 
She then told us that she had so many books she had to keep them in her closet and they still didn’t fit. 
The image of her overflowing closet was captivating. I had another question: “Out of all of the books that you’ve read, can you tell me some of your favorites? 
She paused to think, and then had to compete with the rest of class who began speaking at once, calling out titles I hadn’t heard of. 
“True to the Game II, the first True to the Game, Dutch, all the Dutch books, basically … anything by Teri Woods. Gangsta, Coldest Winter Ever. A Street Girl Named Desire. Baby Momma Drama. I read that in one night. I loved that, too. Do you read Flexin and Sexin?” 
“Miss,” one of them asked, “are we going to read those books or the kind they teach in school?”
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah's essay on Kendrick Lamar's "good kid m.A.A.d. City" in the Los Angeles Review of Books is both great writing and insightful cultural commentary. 

Ironically, in an essay about music, it is her mention of a black student who embraces "black literature"--but has never read Toni Morrison--that is the most memorable aspect of the piece. 

I have conflicted and complicated feelings about the state of black literacy.

Yes, I like to see people reading on the bus.

But, my concern is that the divides between high culture and low culture have been so erased and massaged that many folks cannot distinguish between a type of art (and writing) that is permanent and transcends time, and other types of cultural products which are both ephemeral and disposable.

I am all for the importance and joys of what has been termed "low culture".

But, and by analogy, we ought not to confuse Big Macs and filet mignon.

I can stomach and enjoy the former; the latter is proper cuisine. I know the difference. Sadly, we are raising a generation of young people who are incapable of making such a distinction.

For example, when Borders bookstore was still open, I asked one of the managers why books such as "Candy Licker" were near Zora Neal Hurston and Ralph Ellision's novels in the "black literature" section of the store.

His honest answer: "urban literature" sells very well in black neighborhoods, and they are both genres written by African-Americans. The answer was very matter of fact and direct. I respect such a response. The implications of it remain troubling.

Blackness is many things. It can be beautiful, smart, funny, intelligent, and genius. Blackness is also grotesque, ugly, maddening, sad, crude, and low brow.

Thus, who are the gate keepers for this multi-dimensional thing known as "black culture" and who gets to decides what is "authentically black?"

Darren Sands' essay in the New York Observer on the future trajectory of "urban literature" explores how thug/urban literature is in a transitional moment as it tries to navigate these questions:
If authors of the genre have the distinction of being real-life players in the world they describe, Ms. Clark—thrice a New York Times best-selling author—has more than lived up to her title as the queen of street lit. She was so enamored with Al Dickens, author of the underground classic Uncle Yah Yah 21st Century Man of Wisdom, that she eventually married him after meeting him at Rahway State Prison (now East Jersey State Prison). 
But Ms. Clark actually went one step better. Or worse. She switched places with her husband. She was released from prison in 2007 after serving nine and a half years for mail fraud, wire fraud and money laundering. She’d been the ringleader of an illegal scheme that solicited thousands of dollars from consumers to put into a pot and then paid out to different “winners” at different times. 
She wrote her fiction longhand on yellow legal pads, the pages of which circulated through the jail compound at Federal Prison Camp in Alderson, W.Va., with prisoners reading one page at a time then passing it on. It was there that Ms. Clark served time with a wealthy mogul named Martha Stewart, who served as an inspiration and an occasional business adviser. “She did her little five months like a trouper and was always willing to help you out if she could,” Ms. Clark told the Urban Book Source in 2007. 
While Ms. Clark was incarcerated, she sent her first manuscript, Thugs and the Women Who Love Them, to Carl Weber of Black Print Publishing in Brooklyn. Weeks later, she received a letter saying that her manuscript was accepted. 
The genre, with its allegiance to all-or-nothing street politics and a firebrand code of ethics, was initially fostered by a cadre of authors like Ms. Clark who had actually lived the lives they narrated on the page. 
Now that street lit seems poised to jump from the ghetto into the mainstream, it’s an open question whether that authenticity can survive. A major record label has snapped up several of the most popular authors, including Ms. Clark. Reality stars are co-authoring books.
Suddenly, a genre that built its cachet in the hearts and minds of voracious readers is wondering if it’s losing its soul.
In total, I wish that "black" urban "literature" would just go away. Contrived and exaggerated ugliness presented as authentic blackness holds no interest or appeal to me. For others? I understand the attraction towards thug literature for a certain part of the ghetto underclass (and those voyeurs and tourists who want a cheap thrill), even as I would make different choices.

There is no easy accounting for taste.


vintagepeugeot said...

I hate it when I go into a bookstore looking for Percival Everett and they've placed him in the 'urban' section. Books A Million will never again see the inside of my wallet. Have you read "Erasure"?

And yes, if urban fiction ceased to exist, then the world would be a better place for it. Every time I see someone black and younger than me on the bus reading, it's always this nonsense.

I mean, it almost feels like a conspiracy to keep us ignorant, like rap music...too far?

chauncey devega said...

There is good hip hop and bad hip hop/rap. I am sure there are some "thug literature" that is "good"...maybe.

Speaking of thug classics there is a documentary coming out on Iceberg Slim btw. Are you ready?

Chesyre said...

I stop reading on the bus , too much of a tactical liability .

chauncey devega said...

Ready for an ambush are ya! Got to keep the visual scanning up ;)

Fortuna said...

The video clips on "This American Life" are so eye-opening. I'd go to their production of "Hamlet" in a heartbeat! Whoever the music director was for that video trailer deserves applause: Karl Orff's "Carmina burana" is stunning anytime, and choosing this work's opening for background is quite smart (Hamlet and Carmina have interweaving themes that work very well together). Sorry, didn't mean to get all fannish, but I do love that Orff piece. :-)

chauncey devega said...

Glad you checked them out. The actual movie about Hamlet being staged in a prison is worth seeking out. We have great commenters here on WARN and they always offer up great suggestions and comments.

AlexVanderpoolstyle said...

I don't really get the fear of ephemera argument coming from a genre comic book and sci-fi fan.

With all the discussion around the passing of James Gandolfini, I'm hyper aware that mainstream America has no place for a black Sopranos, black Sons of Anarchy, or black Dexter. There is no reason that we should accept that genre stories of romanticized criminality are part of white privilege.

Outside of some Puzzo, haven't read any urban lit.
But the defenses of it feel like strong arguments:

In terms of the relationship between hi and low art, I am fascinated by the recent Slate piece on Ralph Ellison which seems to suggest that he never completed his second novel because he felt that Iceberg Slim beat him to the punch.

chauncey devega said...

I hear you . How do we decide what is low and high art? I struggle with that :)

"With all the discussion around the passing of James Gandolfini, I'm hyper aware that mainstream America has no place for a black Sopranos, black Sons of Anarchy, or black Dexter. There is no reason that we should accept that genre stories of romanticized criminality are part of white privilege."

Real talk there. Are we always to be buffoons? And what of black audiences who want to see us that way?