Lauren Leto

What Constitutes African-American Fiction and Why?

Posted in book porn by Lauren Leto on February 24, 2010

I was surprised to see Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor on the list of PEN/Faulkner nominees. I was surprised because I had seen the book many, many times at Borders. No, I didn’t see it here:

I saw it here:

Now, Whitehead is most definitely African-American. Sag Harbor is most definitely a fiction book. But why doesn’t he have a spot with the other fiction books?

The problem is that any and all African-American fiction gets put into this section, which means that James Baldwin is next to Romance novels. This isn’t opportune for either genre.

The other Romance novels get their own section. And look! This section is having a sale (and look at all those white characters on the cover). Too bad African-American Romance authors can’t participate. They’re stuck over next to Zora Neale Hurston.

I was taken aback by the injustice of all authors involved. A normal reader looking for a new novel comes into Borders and browses the fiction section. Maybe they don’t go over to the African-American fiction section because they think it is like the other sections next to it: studies of the race’s culture.

Yes, folks, I’m afraid so. African-American fiction is the only singled out race. Asian, hispanic and Native American authors of fiction all get their spot in the regular fiction section.

I started thinking, “well, maybe it’s because the dominant theme is about being African-American.”  Then I saw this:

Oh! To Kill A Mockingbird! Surely, that must be in African-American fiction if they’re going to make the argument that the section is for books with dominant themes about African-Americans.

It isn’t. It’s in the regular fiction.

So, why?

Let’s recap:

– Any fiction by a African-American is put into this section

– Misunderstandings about the section (or not knowing that the section exists) may lead people to not browse the section

– These books miss out on sales in their real genre because they’re put in this section

– It has nothing to do with the theme of the book, but rather the color of the author.

P.S. Follow Colson Whitehead here @colsonwhitehead

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12 Responses

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  1. Ryan said, on February 24, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    I’m so glad you brought this up. Ever since I first entered a Borders, I noticed that section and was so confused. Sometimes, if I wanted a new Walter Mosley novel, I’d have to look through the Af. Amer. section. I wondered why so many great works of fiction were thrown in this section and I can up with the same conclusions as you did. However, I didn’t noticed James Baldwin was there too and not in Lit. That’s just disrespectful. They should at least place books in Literature as well but the stores don’t care that much. It immediately shrinks a black authors audience to just his/her race.

    • Lauren Leto said, on February 24, 2010 at 2:35 pm

      So true. At first I assumed that they at least put a couple copies in the regular fiction section and then others also in the African-American fiction section, but they didn’t.

  2. Sara said, on February 24, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    I am so glad you brought this up. I used to work in a book store that was part of a corporate chain. The other employees and I used to have this conversation on a regular basis. It makes no sense. Whenever I asked my boss, she told me that she had previously asked HER boss the same thing. The final answer we were eventually given wasn’t even very satisfactory. Turns out, all the layouts and displays and organization of the store is done on paper in the corporate offices, without really considering practical placement within the stores. To me, this really sucks and its just another instance of the “higher ups” running things without considering how life is way down here on the totem pole.

  3. Randy said, on February 25, 2010 at 10:36 pm

    Excellent observation I have seen this in stores but I haven’t made the connection. The most difficult thing for me to comprehend in this day and age in America with all of our diversity and multicultural training is the fact that we still view of things in a black and white divided perspective. For the most part in the area I live in we are still separated by race in our neighborhoods. There might be a small mix of other cultures and races but it is mostly class based. Why do we still separate ourselves? I would think that any publisher would want to expose their writer’s book no matter the color of their skin to as wide of a purchasing public that they are able to.

  4. african american writers said, on July 30, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    I do agree that there is that kind of discrimination. While it presents an opportunity that those who like AA writers would get to know more works by black authors.

  5. […] excellent visual post on the crazy injustice of shelving books by color (and I don’t mean book jacket) by Lauren […]

  6. Virginia DeBerry said, on October 17, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    Thank you. I appreciate your support and recognition of this problem. We are aware that in many cases, African American readers like the separate sections, but I don’t think they truly understand the impact, economic and otherwise, it has on us, the writers. Illustrating your point with To Kill A Mockingbird is right on target. Books about “us” written by white authors are in general fiction while books about “us” written by “us” are segregated. Donna Grant and I write is women’s fiction with Af-Am characters–stories of struggle and triumph, loss, coping, love, and life, learning. What’s “black” about that? But for reasons I cannot fathom, publishing and bookstores have collectively decided that only black people could possibly be interested in reading books by black people, that our stories have no resonance with the general reading population. Of course they don’t assume the same about others…everyone will read Amy Tan, Isabel Allende, Khaled Hosseni, etc.. What’s interesting is that this doesn’t apply to writers of African descent who are not American. You will find Zadie Smith and Chimamande Adichie in fiction…

    This has become somewhat of a crusade and I have blogged about it often–including http://bit.ly/cgmrOC, and I could go on, but i will resist. Thanks again.

  7. sylviahubbard1 said, on August 2, 2011 at 7:04 am

    this has been a serious grip in the AA community for Barnes & Nobles stores and have caused outraged because even some alisted authors can’t get their books on the shelves because they want to put them all in one place so they run out of space.

  8. Basement Paradise said, on September 13, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    Good stuff! Worth further investigation!

  9. Weekly Reader | Randy Susan Meyers said, on May 14, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    […] excellent visual post on the crazy injustice of shelving books by color (and I don’t mean book jacket) by Lauren […]

  10. Do books have a race? « Hidden Key said, on August 3, 2012 at 12:30 pm

    […] Check out Lauren Leto for more on this topic: https://laurenleto.wordpress.com/2010/02/24/what-constitutes-african-american-fiction-and-why/ […]


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