Dusty Pages: Black Women and Their Book Clubs
Ghetto Lit is a quickly growing genre, but will I be able to complete one book of it?
Currently there is a popular saying that has been gaining more and more popularity at the ends of emails and on black radio talk shows. “If you want to hide something from black people, put it in a book.” People feel that it has been said so much that it has to be true. Most Americans don’t read so it isn’t as if black people are an exception. But I will say this; if you really want to hide it from African Americans don’t put it into a book of Urban Literature. Urban literature, also known as ghetto lit, gangsta fiction, urban novels, whatever you want to call it, is popular with a lot of African Americans today, young and old. I was first introduced to the genre years ago when two of my coworkers were discussing what books they were going to read next.“Don’t you like to read?” she asked me, holding out a book. I took it from her and read the inside cover, my brow furrowing a bit. I handed it back to her and said,
“No, it’s not for me. “
She huffed at me and said I didn’t know what I was missing. I’m sure I didn’t and wasn’t really interested in finding out.
You still don’t know what it is? How would I describe it?
It’s like gullified Harlequins. It’s like a Tyler Perry movie in book form but without any “Amens” and with the sex and/or violence boosted 10 fold. It’s like the Berenstain Bears except no Bears and it’s F-rated (F for What the …. and ….!)
Yeah, it’s like that. And it’s what black people from age 15-55 ask me for because they want to read it.
“Someone tole me you might have some Zane books over here.” I looked at the young girl who I would put between 16-18, maybe 19. She was with her (obvious) boyfriend who seemed about the same age. I shake my head and point them to the department they should be in. I make no outward sign of judgment although inside I’m thinking what the heck is she doing reading Zane? Is she old enough to read Zane?
Damn, am I old enough to read Zane?
Although statistics say that most Americans don’t read I wonder if it’s really the case or if people are just discounting what they read. I think people take the “educational” approach to reading, thinking that if it’s something a teacher hasn’t assigned then it doesn’t classify as reading. So instead these women (and some men) come through the library looking for books from Triple Crown or asking when the latest book by Mary B. Morrison is going to drop. It’s light reading, they think, so it doesn’t really count.
A couple months ago a friend asked me to join a book club that a friend of hers was creating. “What type of books are they reading?” I asked.
“Just come to the first meeting and see,” she said.
So, I go and who should greet me but the very same coworker who tried to hip me to this genre years ago.
“Oh, what are you doing here?” she asked as I walked into the room. “Are you going to read the kind of books we like? Are you going to read the books we choose?”
My first inclination was to say no, I’m not on that stuff but she threw down the gauntlet as if it was a challenge. Like I feel like I’m too good to read “Bitch Reloaded” or “Sin No More“. So instead I said, “We’ll see…”
But inside the English major in me came out and I began asking myself questions like: What type of discussion can be had over these books? Will there be notable metaphors and symbolism in the literature? Will we be able to relate the themes to our lives or even extend it to what is going on in our culture/society?
See I’m not the type of person someone wants to have in his or her book club.
As I came to quickly find out the first two books selected broached none of those subjects. The book was really a how-to on how to be a hustler in the underworld.
And I have to admit I didn’t read it. I never got a chance to pick the book up. I emailed my friend in Boston and told her of my dilemma and that I might skip the book club.
“LOL. You are so bougie. Go ahead and read the books; don’t you want to see what the commotion is about?”
Yeah, I guess although I must point out that my friend is also a black woman who has not read the books to see what the commotion is all about.
So at the meeting everyone who had read the books are pouring over the details about how good it was and why did she go back to dude and anyone reading the book could take it as a 101 in dealing. I asked questions about it and said I would probably try to read it later.
The second person (my coworker) chose her book and then gave me a look of satisfaction.
“Are you going to read this book?” asked the friend who had extended the invitation for me to join the book club. We were in a short-lived book club together a few years ago, with a staggering membership of three people. The first book I chose which my friend said was too long along with being letter laden.
Am I being scrutinized for sadditiness?
“Yeah,” I said with full confidence although inside I was thinking, “Will I?”
I am trudging through this book. There should be Cliff notes for this book. I realized the best way to read it was to stop taking notes on everything that I felt didn’t sit well with me. I also started skipping over the conversations. And most of the sex scenes. Which means I’m halfway through the book.
Does it count as reading it? I think so –or at least kind of.
I am struggling through it and I know it’s a mental thing. But then it’s not like I go out and read everything that is deemed “high brow black lit”. Colson Whitehead leaves me flummoxed and try as I might I can’t get into J. California Cooper. I’ll admit, I worship at the literary alter of Toni Morrison and I am more prone to pick up a book by Margaret Atwood than Tina McElroy Ansa. But it doesn’t mean I’m not down. As Maurice Sendak has said, “not every book is for every person” and just because I’m not profusely reading ghetto lit doesn’t mean I’m not down.
Or maybe I am worried that it means that I’m not.
So I’ve decided to stay with it, painful books and all, communing with my sistahs once a month over soul food and carnal compositions, biding the months until it’s my turn to make the choice. And I’ve already decided it’s going to be this.
Maybe not fully what they are used to, but in the interest of black womanism and literature isn’t it all good?