Thursday, September 06, 2007


Crossing Over—Mirror vs Window

When an African American writer or entertainer achieves success with a wider (read White) audience, a la Will Smith or Terry McMillan, they are said to have cross-over appeal. Why isn’t the reverse true? When Blacks watch CSI, Spiderman 3 or pick up the latest John Grisham, no one attributes that to cross-over. Is it assumed that everyone will find these diversions entertaining? That race doesn’t matter as long as it’s White? That Blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, Lakhota Sioux, Lebanese and whomever else the census separates out will “get” the storyline and generate the dollars requisite for success?

Even in the racially diverse “Grey’s Anatomy”, the central character, intern Meredith Grey, is a White woman, despite the fact series writer/producer Shonda Rhimes, is African American. Happenstance or economics? Quiet as it’s kept, in our first novel, Exposures, we “wrote White”, deciding it was the surest way to test our joint writing chops--and get published. It worked; the novel sold in two weeks. It took a lot longer to find a home for our first book with Black characters. At the time we didn’t fit the established categories (we weren’t Toni or Terry), so many editors didn’t believe we would find an audience. They were wrong.

Are these situations silent testimony to the more refined racism that lives with us everyday—the kind of de facto pecking order largely unrecognized by those who perpetuate it, and unchallenged by those of us who are aware, but just grateful to be in the game? Maybe it’s not so silent. The movie “Crash” asks questions about who we are, and what we think about all those other people. There was awkward, knowing laughter in the theater when our not so secret little prejudices were laid bare.

A few months ago, a White reader (one of many who identify themselves that way) emailed to say how much she enjoyed one of our books, but wondered if she was welcome to read our work since she wasn’t Black. We were stunned by the question, but it spoke to the segregated reading habits which are more the norm than we would like to admit. Are we so tired of dealing with each other at work, in the supermarket, on the bus, that it’s a relief to open a book and find people with strange accents and hairdos banished from our fictional world? Or is it more insidious? Are books our mirrors, and we only look for reflections of ourselves?

Shouldn’t reading provide a window to the greater world? We read Anna Karenina without being Russian, The 100 Secret Senses without being Chinese, Catcher in the Rye without being teenaged prep school boys, Shelters of Stone without being Cro-Magnon—Anne Rice without being a vampire. We delight in Carl Hiassen without being Floridians, Sandra Cisneros with no experience of being Latinas from Chicago, understand the plight of a Nigerian girl as told by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, never having set foot in Lagos. Since childhood we have read thousands of books about people who didn’t look like us and found them enlightening, hilarious, heartbreaking, and know, without doubt, we are better people because of it.

Why then is it so surprising when works of fiction, save for “literary” efforts like those of Alice Walker and Edward P. Jones, which mostly recount our collective, tragic, post middle passage history, cross over? Are we to believe that as fully franchised, contemporary Americans living a variety of social, educational, and economic circumstances that our stories are so foreign as to be incomprehensible? That we share no universal human truths?

After the surprise success of Tryin’ to Sleep in the Bed You Made, which featured drawings of two brown-skinned women on the cover, our publisher made a conscious effort to cross over our next book. That cover was dominated by a house flanked by a lush tree. Our three main characters were rendered the size of carpenter ants, their color indistinguishable. So, to appeal to a wider audience we had to lose face? What must we sacrifice to be palatable to the culture at large?

Some bookstores even have separate African American areas. Is this to make us more comfortable in unfamiliar territory? Does this highlight our work, or let other people know they can skip this aisle? Granted, some argue that having a unique section celebrates the Black experience. But are they really separate but unequal niches, a publishing ghetto with very different real estate values?

Until Waiting to Exhale made publishers understand that Black people buy books, we were mostly left outside the gates. Clearly they did not learn in American history that we risked and often lost our lives to learn to read. The Exhale phenomenon is the reason many of us were given a chance. Walter Mosley reached a wider readership thanks to the endorsement of President Clinton. But is it really so hard to throw open our windows and get some fresh air? Browse a bookstore section you usually pass without Oprah to lead the way? If you like Janet Evanovich, try Valerie Wilson-Wesley. Ask a librarian or a co-worker for a recommendation; that’s how many non-Black readers found our work. You might discover a good read on an unexpected shelf—maybe gain insight into someone else, or surprisingly, yourself.

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posted by DeBerry and Grant at 10:20 AM


Anonymous eisa said...

This is the enduring challenge: creating an authentic experience through word and then reaching a diverse readership. And the writing doesn't present the challenge. The writing part is fine. As you wrote so well in your blog, there is so much pleasure to be gained from reading narratives, good narratives, regardless of the cultural or ethnic background of the writer and characters. The problem, I think, in contemporary books publishing, is the marketing.

If the publisher doesn't believe the book has universal appeal, then it won't be marketed to people who actually might find pleasure in the work. Then, it's up to the author herself. She has to get out there and reach a diverse readership. However, there are so many cultural, institutional, and racial barriers in place that prevent writers of African descent from participating in literary events that non-African Americans attend in large numbers.

I'm not sure not removing the bookstore African American section would help either... I think, ultimately, it helps to guide core reaers to new work - and the classics - by Black writers. Until the other barriers are dismantled, I think, and maybe I'm wrong, but I thnk the Af-Am section must remain.

12:57 PM  
Anonymous Cheri said...

I agree with Eisa that the problem in reaching a diverse readership lies in marketing, but I tend to think it may be the implementation of the 'African-American section' that has caused the problem. First, it is a fallacy that all blacks live in urban areas as represented in some of these books. So, the fact that 'urban' in reference to book categories seems to be represented by some as synonymous with the black experience is disturbing.

Many blacks, like myself, live in small towns and cities. Racial breakdown means that when books are divided by into a 'black' section here, they automatically lose the opportunity to reach a substantial audience. African-American authors in these areas will not be able to sell well, either counting on a 'black' audience, because the numbers of readers necessary to make that happen are non-existent. And, whites are less likely to buy books by blacks cordoned off into a special area because they will not think they are relevant to them.

Expanding this scenario, I think submitting to the label though I know it's one publishers like, substantiates the idea that our books are meant to be read by "African-Americans," while other books are are meant to be read by everyone. This seems not only to guarantee that whites won't experience written stories of our lives in the same way we do theirs, but it also seems to almost guarantee there will be an invisible ceiling our book sales.


2:26 PM  
Anonymous Toni said...

Wow can I relate to this blog! I wanted nothing more while in school to design an Asian film. It is not like I am fascinated by karate pics, or have spent time studying the filmmaker Kurosawa, but I always want to do want is not expected of me. Wouldn't it be great for an audience to read the credits and wonder why there is one non-Japanese name on the crew?

My mother typically categories films in two categories - films she will see and lily white films. For example, "Out of Africa", a film starring white folks on the Dark Continent would fall into the latter of the two. A couple of years ago, I told her how much I liked "Lost in Translation". She watched it, but it sadly fell into the lily white category - never to be seen by her again.

The placement or categorizing of your novel(s) is whether interesting. Would my mom and her book club friends ever choose any of your novels if they were not marketed directly to African Americans? Would I be more interested if it was not placed in the African American section, but in the front of the store, alongside all of the other bestsellers? I don't know - how about making a Japanese style cover and seeing what happens? Or even better, having the marketing people and book cover designers capture the essence of yours and Donna's stories - no matter who or which color the main characters happen to be.

10:54 PM  
Blogger Bestselling Author, Pontif. said...

This is a great post, and quite timely, too, since the discussion's continued circling the web for a minute now.

Have you ladies heard about the discrimination against Millenia Black? I've posted excerpts of her lawsuit complaint against Penguin Group. I'd really like to hear your's been the subject of some very heated debated regarding race in publishing, but I think it, too, reveals the deep divide your post speaks to, which exists on both sides of the publishing line.

12:42 AM  
Blogger Carleen Brice said...

Thank you for pointing out the hypocrisy in the phrase "cross over." I'm happy to find your blog (Thanks to Tayari) and just added it to my links.

I agree with Eisa and the others that marketing has something to do with this, but so do people's biases. I think there are a lot of white readers who see black folks on the cover and think, "Not for me." And I know there are a lot of black readers who only read books by black authors. Thank God for their support, but both choices are so limiting.

11:12 AM  
Blogger Ramblings...acVernon Menchan said...

Segregated reading habits are the norm...I work in an office peopled with readers, of thirty folk there are only two Blacks, myself and one other. When I published my first book, many of my co-workers purchased to be supportive, however I was absolutely stunned when ninety percent of purchasers said they had never read a black author. When asking why I recieved many vague answers, however one person was very honest, she told me she didnt think there would be any relatibility...she thought that black issues werent her issues...I had to explain that most writers write about human Black folks we have be cultured to know about the mainstream, my guess is that until they have been cultured to 'read black' chances are it is not going to happen, I am sure if I were to ask my co-workers how many had 'read black' other than my work, I would probably be at that same ninety percent...Great Post...


12:07 PM  
Anonymous Ancient Reader said...

After reading all of these comments it makes me wonder what can minorities do to remove the color stigma.

I see at least three areas in need of distinct actions. 1. shedding of social color distinction 2) showing of personal intelligent persona that influence respect and acceptance. 3) quick to demand personal civil rights.

The struggle to receive racial equality is hard because just a few minority have advanced past the slavish mentality and understand the worth of human freedom, however there's the need to rid life of persona non grata.

6:18 PM  
Blogger Bernice L. McFadden said...


8:41 AM  
Blogger Karen said...

Terrific post! I've wanted to write about the crossover issue and the segregation-in-publishing issue for a long time, but didn't know where to start.

Hope to see you soon.

11:26 AM  
Blogger biblioops said...

Toni, my mom is kind of like that too with movies. I think it's partly because there wasn't a lot of positive (or even regular) black representation in movies or TV so now that there's somewhat more, almost everything she watches features a mostly black cast(unless it's too violent or is just a bad movie/show). Not that she's that old, but I think that's a factor on some level. She will see movies with mostly white actors if there's also a black actor or actress in it that she likes. I can't really blame her. Obviously white people like to see and read about themselves, why wouldn't black people be the same way. She's not exclusive with her book selections, though.*

Getting back to books, it seems at least from my POV that black British and/or African authors have less to contend with in getting coverage and due respect for their work. Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Uzodinma Iweala, and Chris Abani for instance have all gotten well-deserved attention in the U.S. and Britain. I'm sure they have their battles too, but I think white media also favors them partly because they're "exotic" (through no effort to seem so on their part). There's nothing glamorous or exotic about American blacks to many Americans beyond bling and the urban jungle. But who knows--there might be lesser-known black authors in Britain struggling to get published too (white British agent to hopeful black English writer: "Can you make it more...'African'?" :).

*I think "Lost in Translation" gets mixed reviews from a lot of people regardless of color. I didn't watch it all the way through be/c I thought it was boring, but maybe I'll have to check it out on Netflix again.


3:37 PM  
Anonymous Reeta said...

Being a reader and one that purchases books on a regular basis I think marketing has a lot to do with book sells for authors whether its promoted to Black or white; however, you are still placed in the AA section whether you are on a shelf or your picture is in a magazine/postcard or whatever. Some authors would never be exposed if not for AA sections. You don't see white authors worrying about whether we read their books or not; whether they should include a Black character so we'll buy their books; or whether the cover offends anybody.

If a reader wants to buy a book, Black or white author, it should not matter what section it's in, but I can truthfully say there are a lot of AA authors that do not make it on the Fiction/Literature shelves at Barnes and Noble.

I know some authors as well as readers might look at it as segregating their books, but unless that book is marketed or author is known then it's not like someone is just going to pull it off the shelf among thousands of books.

If an author is writing about African Americans for African Americans then why can't it be marketed that way? If it's meant for whites, then write with white characters and market as such.

It is my opinion that eventually we (African American readers) will have to order our books online or they will be become special orders in the stores.

This is always an interesting topic.

6:13 PM  
Anonymous Malik L. DeBerry said...

Wow, it's great to see everyone so enaged! I agree with many of the opions mentioned. I too hate that we have to have African-American sections, but yet I rely on them to introduce me to new works that I might not discover otherwise.

I don't think that crossover is necessary or vital to the publishing industry. Undoubtedly that statement will raise some eyebrows, but this is why I say that. From a marketing standpoint crossover is about "Dollars & Cents". And unlike other industries, consumers have less control of those dollars.

The movie & music industries have learned that crossover is vital to the bottom line and to maximize those profits it has to go both ways. Many of us view the one or two African-American actors in an otherwise all whhite cast as tokens. But in actuality if one person, that wouldn't have gone to see the movie, purchases a ticket because of those "token blacks" the objective is being met... Now multiply that by thousands or even millions and that bottom line grows substantially.

The same applies to music. Consumers have much more control over these industries partly because of the digital age we live in. These industries face major competition from youtube to itunes to redbox. They are consumer driven! Ufortunately for those persons that enjoy the written word, options are far fewer. So, inevitably we puchase our books as they are marketed.

When new ideas spring up and begin to eat at profits, such as the revolution that took place in the news publishing business, we will see a change as to how written works are marketed.

12:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that American writers of color should consider the fact that the entire publishing model is slowly changing; and that this is a chance for those who want to write with a limitless, boundless fiction pen; to learn, embrace and master these new models. Now is the time to grasp the mobile and web 2.0 initiatives to push your works and filter them into the mainstream collective. now is the time to consider the way people are receiving their informationa and entertainment. Many are not even buying books in printed form, these days.

I applaud the lawsuit against Penguin with all my heart. I also say fuck'em all. A segregated bookshelf will not define me -- or my work. I am the master of my own distribution.

12:04 AM  

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