Urban Literature Redefined

by G. Andi Rhos

Throughout my childhood in the 70’s while other girls my age played with dolls, hula hoops, skipped rope and practiced cornrows in one another’s hair, I read books instead. I was labeled ‘weird’. I was openly called ‘White girl’. That didn’t matter. I had my books. In a solitary head-scratching game I often played, I’ve made several futile attempts to ascertain where my love for books originated. All I can allude to is being raised by my maternal grandparents. They remembered the pre-radio and pre-television eras. Countless memorable stories they’d shared with me about radio parties of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. I therefore gathered, because of limited entertainment options, reading became a pastime of the elder generations by default.

My grandparents’ modest Brooklyn home could have easily masqueraded as a library. A Black library. The many first editions by Black authors were bountiful, plentiful--in seemingly endless supply. Native Son, Their Eyes were Watching God, Go Tell it on the Mountain, Sula, Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X merely nicked the surface. Growing up in such a literarily rich environment, it seemed only natural, if out of nothing more than sheer curiosity, that I’d eventually pick up a book and peek inside. I cannot recall when this phenomenon occurred exactly. Any attempt to figure out the specifics would assuredly lead to another round of the head-scratching game. Point is, it happened.

These books were my teachers, my family, my friends and my guardian angels. They talked about Africans, Coloreds, Negroes and Blacks. They talked about me. Much ado about the goings-on of the Deep South, slavery, and the Great Northern Migration; and the effects these events had on the Black race as well as global socio-economical and political climates. So selflessly these brilliant Black writers gave of their genius. I learned of worlds within my world--history, culture, ancient civilizations, the underground railroad, racism, segregation, discrimination, Black Power, Black Pride, civil rights and injustice--prior to stepping foot inside a classroom. I traveled the seven continents without ever leaving my seat. New worlds, new perspectives and new adventures were just a page away. These books made me laugh, made me cry, and provoked thought. These books inspired me to become a writer.

Never had I felt the need to branch outside my comfort zone and read literature written by Whites. Books written by White authors were all that could be found on the required reading list in public schools. So I was inevitably exposed to the likes of Dickens, Kipling and Harper Lee via academia. Yet, I always derived solace in reading the works of Black writers. These were my education and my rites of passage.

Throughout my teen years in the 80’s, I continued to avidly read Black Literature. I consumed offerings by Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison like fried porgies and grits with biscuits and gravy on a Saturday morning. In the early 90’s, however, I noticed a shift in the current of Black Literature. Along came Street Lit, a.k.a. Hip Hop Lit, a.k.a. Gangsta Lit, a.k.a. Ghetto Lit, a.k.a. Urban Lit. These tales from the hood made an embarrassing, and often laughable, attempt at a Donald Goines, Amiri Baraka, Last Poets, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni and Robert Beck (Iceberg Slim) revival.

To say I was mortified by what I read is being extremely, extremely diplomatic. These books, this, this ‘literature’ lacked a beginning, a middle, and an end; lacked originality, lacked a climax, lacked a conclusion, lacked character development, lacked plot development, lacked subplots, lacked symbolism, lacked imagery, lacked foreshadowing and, worst of all, lacked literary merit. And the editing? What fucking editing! The preponderance of typos alone led me to believe that the authors were functionally illiterate. To add insult to injury, the authors of this drivel, unable to be published by reputable mainstream publishing houses, and rightfully so, began their own so-called independent presses without knowing the first thing about the publishing process; without knowing the first thing about literature. The devastating proof of this revealed itself in their finished product. This deluge of recycled toilet paper passing itself off as writing set Blacks back on the plantation.

Us b da niggaz uh pubblushun cuz us ain’t nevva bin reallee, trulee, bonafidedlee pubblush’t. Yessa massuh riteh boss ah rekkun us cain’t rite lak y’allum. Us iz noo ta dis here litritcha.

As for those who didn’t have the funds to start their pseudo independent presses, they turned to POD outfits or to unscrupulous publishers propagating substandard publishing industry practices; all of which would print virtually ANYTHING and relied upon authors purchasing their own books and selling them themselves on the internet, street corners or out of the trucks of their cars. Also, I might point out, some of the major publishing houses either own or are affiliated with the POD companies. So even when these major houses initially rejected this new jack Black Literature, they still made a buck off these Street Lit naïve Black authors who paid to be published.

Then something happened. This new breed of self-published Black Literature called Street Lit was selling and was selling big. Suddenly, mainstream publishing houses began offering substantial, if not lucrative, book deals to Black writers, whom they once dissed and dismissed, of this Black literary subgenre called Street Lit, and cashed in on the latest Blaxploitation craze--beaucoup. Next thing you know, everybody and his mama is churning out Street Lit hoping to become the next Zane, Omar Tyree, Eric Jerome Dickey, E. Lynn Harris, Vickie M. Stringer or Nikki Turner. That wouldn’t have been so bad provided these aspiring writers first took the time to hone their craft, learn basic grammatical rules of the English language, learn the rudiments of writing, read the Black literary masters and, very important, learn the ins and outs of the publishing business. Overwhelmingly, this was not the case. Black Literature as a whole is suffering as a result of this negligence.

One positive borne of this nightmare, one which advocates of Street Lit fondly and frequently point to, is Blacks between the ages of 14 and 30 are reading now more than ever. Considering the literary deficiencies of what they’re reading, I question how positive this is. Urban Literature, as we know it today, is fast becoming an extension of Gangsta Rap. A mere shadow of an entity without a life of its own spewing rhetoric, misogynic viewpoints and glorifying criminal pursuits. It’s become the literary equivalent of head-bopping, booty-shaking instant gratification. No depth. No art.

I am of the mindset that Street Lit is an integral part of the Black Experience. It is a modern-day written continuation of our griot ancestry. Therefore, these raw, gritty stories should be told. But. But, they should be told the right way. When done properly, Street Lit lends itself to our already rich culture. When done properly, Street Lit provides a perfect platform for a Harlem Renaissance rebirth. When done properly, Street Lit imparts knowledge, entertainment and a gateway to diatribes and symposiums regarding the concerns, struggles and triumphs of the Black Community at large.

This is not to say that Black writers of Street Lit are under obligation to deem themselves martyrs and prophets and raise the consciousness of Blacks. Absolutely not! Is Nora Roberts or Jackie Collins or Tom Clancy charged with raising the consciousness of Whites? Why should White writers be free to have all the literary fun and introduce their readership to romance, passion, erotica, fantasy, intrigue, conspiracy theories, espionage, cutthroat action, etc, but everything by Black writers must be uplifting? Bullshit! However, this is to say that in order for Black Literature as a whole to retain (or return to) its glory, up-and-coming Black writers are indeed charged with crafting stories that are as good or better than our White counterparts. That includes the story itself and all of its components, editing, cover design, distribution, marketing as well as bookstore placement. I’m not seeing that. Sadly, I’m seeing excellence in Street Lit as a rarity, an exception. It’s high time that excellence becomes the rule.

Urban Literature Redefined by G. Andi Rhos

© Copyright 2006. All rights reserved. No portion of this work may be duplicated or copied without the expressed written consent of the author.

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