In Borders in Pentagon City, Virginia, the fiction is at the back of the store. In order to get to the fiction, which is helpfully labeled "Literature/Fiction," you need to walk through a different section. You can walk through the religious books, through psychology, through DVDs and then through comic books and graphic novels.

Or, you can walk through Gender/Women's Studies. Or, you can walk through "African American".

It's that last one that gives me pause. Like the Gender/Women's studies aisle, the African American one could be filled with books about civil rights, and history books about identity and political struggles.

But there's a different equation for African American. All chick lit -- books that are arguably written for women by women--is shelved with Fiction/Literature.

But black romance novels, books by Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, or Ralph Ellison are shelved separately, under African American. (There is something similar going on with the GLBT section, but those books are less prominently displayed, and I don't want this post to be the length of a book, so for now I am just focusing on the African American section).

I actually think they might be double-shelved, with at least some shelved in the designated section as well as in the special, prominently displayed African American section, but my point stands.

This clearly is not limited to Virginia; offers the option of browsing in the category "African American" and "GLBT" but as far as I can tell, those are the only minority groups that get their own categories.

In a Washington D.C. Barnes and Noble, the American Girl books in the Josefina series and the Addy series -- the Hispanic and black American Girls-- are always selling out before the other ones.

But the orders about what to stock come from a central office, so the Barnes and Noble orders the whole Kit series for their shelves--the ones about a white girl during the great depression--while regularly putting in special orders for Josefina and Addy books. Which is to say, that there is a market for selling books about a specific ethnicity to people of that ethnicity. But all the American Girl books are shelved together. Why can't the adults' books be the same way.

For a while, I knew that this designation made me uncomfortable, but I couldn't articulate why.

And then I listened to Toni Morrison read her book Beloved, which is one of the award-winning books that is designated as African American. It IS a book about black slaves which is written by a black women. But it should not be only for a black audience.

(click to read more)

One of the characters sees a friend's photo in the newspaper and, though he can't read, he knows instantly that it is very very bad news:

Because there was no way in hell a black face could appear in a newspaper if the story was about something anybody wanted to hear. A whip of fear broke through the heart chambers as soon as you saw a Negro's face in a paper, since the face was not there because the person had a healthy baby, or outran a street mob. Nor was it there because the person had been killed, or maimed or caught or burned or jailed or whipped or evicted or stomped or raped or cheated, since that could hardly qualify as news in a newspaper. It would have to be something out of the ordinary-something white people would find interesting, truly different, worth a few minutes of teeth sucking if not gasps. And it must have been hard to find news about Negroes worth the breath catch of a white citizen of Cincinnati.

I'd like to believe that that is changed; that as citizens of this world we should all be expected to read stories about people who don't look like us and who have had vastly different experiences. Learning about the horrors that were the foundation of this country should be interesting and compelling. It gives us a fuller understanding of the world in which we live.

By separating out the African American literature, bookstores imply that white readers still are not interested in "a Negro's face in the paper" and in the stories those papers could contain. (This headline implies there's still some element of that even when a black president regularly graces the front pages of every newspaper in the country).

By calling it African American literature, there is this strange message that that literature, which includes some of my favorite books, is not for me. That because those books do not contain my history, I'm not supposed to read it. How am I supposed to understand that history if I'm not able to read the stories that come out of it? And, isn't fiction all about discovering worlds that a reader might not otherwise be exposed to?

Relatedly, The Help, which is written by a white woman about black domestic help, is not filed under African American fiction at Slate's sister site, The Root, self described as "a daily online magazine that provides thought-provoking commentary on today's news from a variety of black perspectives," posted a compelling review about the questions raised about having a white woman write that book. (I don't think there is a problem writing magazines or books with a single readership in mind, I just don't think those books and magazines should be separated out in bookstores with such broad strokes that it implies that all readers can only read about people who look like them).

In her article, Natalie Hopkinson writes about the double standard that white and black writers face:

Several reviews noted the hurdle Stockett overcame, being a white woman writing about black characters. White people aren't generally expected to be able to code-switch. For black people, it is a matter of survival. Society requires us to be bicultural, to know what it means to get a perm when a white woman says, compared to when a black woman does. These are the cultural competencies members of minority groups get no extra credit for.

By putting all the literature written by black writers in one place, I think bookstores might be perpetuating this; they might be saying "if you write like a white person, your books will be recognized as mainstream. Otherwise, they should get a special designation."

That's a frustrating and backwards path.

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