This is a topic I’ve already hashed through on the Oakland Arts Review blog, but I think it’s worth going even deeper into this topic here. We’ve got a serious diversity issue in literature that needs to be addressed.
At this point you might be sighing and nodding your head impatiently: Yes, yes, I’ve heard this one before. But this is larger than the whole “POC need to be in the forefront” and “normalize LGBT characters in media” arguments. The honest to goodness truth is that we’re no longer in an age where we are dreaming of representation of all identities in mainstream entertainment. We’ve got diversity in all forms of media from television, news, the silver screen, music, dance, sports, you name it. And we can attribute these things to a slew of reasons, but most notably, it is the fruit born by artists and creators from diverse backgrounds who have worked to produce media that represents their identities. What we’re facing isn’t a lack of diversity; it’s the obscuring of that diversity.
Let me start with a story I first told a few months ago. Back in December I was out Christmas shopping at my local superstore – which rhymes with ‘Hall-Cart’ – to find some last minute gifts. As often happens, I found myself passing by the book section, and decided to give their small collection a quick looking over. Maybe I would get lucky and find something nice. After perusing their selection of teen romance and adventure books, lifestyle guides, and Christian literature, I went around the corner to find something a little more suited to my gift recipients. That’s when I discovered the “African American” section. Should I be impressed that there was a whole section dedicated specifically for black readers to find representation? Well, I might have been – if had not eighty percent of the books been the stereotypical gangster crime and romances, adorned with glossy images of black woman in lingerie, and men with gold chains, teeth, and guns. In my overall disappointment, I found myself mildly amused by the seasonal addition of a novel titled “The Magic of Mistletoe,” with a man lounging in the snow like a GQ model, with a branch of mistletoe place ever-so tactfully over his crotch.
Again, you look at me as if I’m completely incompetent: You went to Wal- excuse me ‘Hall-Cart’- looking for quality literature? What’s wrong with you? Make no mistake, I wasn’t exactly anticipating a great arrangement of choices at a department store. That doesn’t make it any less disheartening to look at the African American section of anything and be greeted with the same old choices. Are there black men out there who wear grills and drink 40s all day long? Absolutely. Are their black women who stay in abusive relationships with the father of their children for years on end? Most definitely. But that’s not my life. As a black woman in America, I have to wonder, why’s it so easy to walk into the book section of ‘Hall-Cart’ and find stories about wizards, CEO’s, devoted housewives, successful artists, superheroes, and kings, and not a single one of them looks like me?
Let’s even go as far as saying I were to go to my local Barnes and Noble – or equally great bookstore (RIP Borders) – and looked at the sizable African American Lit section. It’s indeed packed with books by the greats. Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Octavia Butler, Zora Neale Hurston, and Phillis Wheatley line the shelves from end to end. The appreciation I have for these historic authors who paved the way for black novelists and poets cannot be expressed in any short terms. But historic is the key term here, because another honest to goodness truth is that I would be hard-pressed to name as many contemporary black novelists as I can historic ones.
It’s fortunate in itself that black Americans even have their own section (I’ve personally never seen a LGBT or Latino section in a bookstore), but the stories we have immediate access to are all too often either the heartbreaking slave and segregation narratives of historic novels, or the quick-produced, hypersexual stories made for casual readers. This trend undoubtedly runs through other marginalized and diverse communities: the stories that end up in stores – often just for the sake of looking progressive and inclusive – focus heavily on the specific struggle those groups face in society because of their identity. What fades into the background are the stories about adolescent discovery, first encounters with the supernatural, taking your rightful place at the throne – in other words, stories that focus on the human struggles these people face, regardless of race, sex, gender, or ability.
This is exactly why blogs like The Writer’s Will, Rich in Color, Gay YA, and others exist: we all aim to ensure that readers are able to find books that tell stories that allow them to see themselves in all forms. Isn’t that the allure many readers have to books in the first place? To live a million life times, experience endless personalities, from the comfort of your home. Our stories are not simply about the struggles we endure because of our identities, but the struggles we endure as human beings, and we desire and deserve the same amount of publicity and variety as any mainstream novel out there. My hope is that one day I’ll be able to go to any bookstore – hell even ‘Hall-Cart’! – and have to deliberate on what black sci-fi novel will sit on my bookshelf next to Kindred. Until that day comes, when we are no longer whispers in the crowd, we do the work to uplift our stories, and defend the validity of their existence.
Where do you stand when it comes to diversity in literature? Do you find difficulty getting your hands of contemporary diverse literature? Do you have something more to add? Weigh in down in the comments section!