The Naked Truth
Appeared in "The Crisis" magazine, Winter 2008
Black folk love sex. They crave it so much, they can't get enough. They need it in their music, need it in their music videos. Need it so much that when they're not watching it on BET or popping their fingers to it on Hot 97, they need to read about it. They need to read about it rough, rugged and raw. Black women like to be called b***** and h*** in the books they read. Apparently, they like to be pimped, though not by actual pimps. They like to be pimped by drug dealers and rap stars and athletes. Men who like to pimp them, who get off on paying Black women to spread their legs. Wide. Black women like to be pimped for clothes, for cars, and - if they really give it up good - for cribs. Black men like to pimp Black women for those things. And, after the sex, Black folk got to confess, got to tell all. Black people like to put their business out there for everyone to read. And, honey, everyone is.
This is Black life as expressed by contemporary commercial Black fiction. These falsehoods, presented as truths, packaged as urban tales, titillate and, seemingly, satisfy so much, they sell like socks - everyone needs to buy more than one. According to publicist Linda A. Duggins, who works with Karrine Steffans at Hachette Book Group USA, Steffans' The Vixen Diaries, her follow-up to the wild best-seller Confessions of a Video Vixen, debuted at #6 on The New York Times bestseller list, #4 on the Publishers Weekly list, and #7 on the Wall Street Journal list of bestselling books. Duggins also says The New York Times business section reported that, of the top ten books preordered in August 2007, The Vixen Diaries was #3.
In response to numbers like these, mainstream publishers slap scantily-clad Black women placed in provocative poses on the covers of trade paperbacks, even when the work is literary fiction, not street lit, or Urban Fiction, as it is often called. Mainstream bookstores cram these books on the shelves and help dictate the cover choices mainstream publishers make. The numbers seem to confirm a Great American Myth, one this country has always sold, and sold well: Black people are hypersexual, are pathological; they feel but don't think. Even more disturbing is this Myth: Black people are dangerous in their hypersexual, pathological irrationality. Perhaps most disturbing of all, we, Black folk, especially young Black folk, are actually starting to believe these stereotypes about ourselves. We're literally buying into the mythology.
I work with young people in my Fort Greene, Brooklyn community, and when I ask the young women, as young as 12 and 13, sometimes as young as 11, why they read urban Fiction, they tell me, "Ms. Ulen, these books keep it real."
"Really?" I ask. "Keep it real what?"
The answer: Really cheap, really disturbing, and, increasingly, really dangerous, according to a growing and disgruntled group of writers, readers, and professionals in Black Books. Many would like to curb the proliferation of hyper-sexualized urban fiction, but no one calls for an end to erotica. On the contrary, the call is for an end to what author Christopher Chambers likens to slave-trading.
Chambers, a former history major, former practicing lawyer, and now Maryland-based author of the Angela Bivens mystery series, says he "can't help but cringe" when he thinks back to "white intellectuals in the 19th century writing about Blacks as hypersexual and subhuman." For Chambers, not much has changed in 400 years, as, to him, "people want to buy and sell us."
Chambers doesn't call for a puritanical end to sex in Black literature. "Whenever I'm writing sex, it has to have a context, developing a character, advancing plot. If not, I don't use it. I think what we have now is sex for sex's sake. It's a formula: Black people need to include sex for something to sell."
Chambers identifies Street Lit authors who assembly-line produce hypersexual content to maximize profit as "his siblings," but adds, "I can fight with my siblings. I mean hair-pulling fighting, but then they're still my siblings." In dialogue with them, when the issue of sales and the desire to make fast money as a Street Lit writer emerges, Chambers tells them that profit-motive has helped fuel a 400 year history of Black people presented as carnal beasts. "Why can't you just make a buck?" he rhetorically asks. "Because these stereotypes still exist."
Just as Ol' Massa encouraged slave men and women (or boys and girls) to mate so they could create slave babies and reproduce his wealth, some mainstream publishers have, according to Chambers, encouraged Black writers to "sex up" their work: "When I was submitting a novel to a division of Random House, people that I had worked with before said I needed to pare down the suspense and intellectual elements of the novel and play up the raw sex for sex's sake. They wanted me to build a bigger Black audience, and I was told the way to do that was to write more salacious sex scenes and cut down other plot elements."
This impulse suggests that Black readers "care more about being titillated than to read about work that reflects their full lives," says literary author Bridgett M. Davis, "and I don't agree." For Davis, conflict with her publisher took place over the cover, not content. Her debut novel, Shifting Through Neutral, explores a father-daughter relationship during Detroit's Motown Era. Thoughtful and engaging, her novel was nominated for a Hurston/Wright Award. The hardcover edition of Shifting offers a counter-narrative to the mainstream story of absent Black fathers. Davis roots her fictional father in his daughter's life, and the back cover of a Black man holding a girl in pigtails expresses this major theme in an evocative way. The front cover, of a car, a Black man's back, and a Black woman's face, signals that the book is adult fiction that would appeal to women, but involves cars and men. These powerful images were changed with the release of the paperback.
"The official statement was that they wanted to reach a broader, or different, audience," Davis says. "The idea was that it was an effort to give the book as much of a life as possible, so young Black women would be more likely to pick it up, and that audience could be tapped. I understand the impulse, and I think the logic is completely misguided."
The paperback edition of Shifting is darker, with a Black woman holding her neck in a subtle expression of sexual longing with a gaze that suggests she's contemplating her own beauty. While the hardcover focused on a woman's face, the paperback reveals a bit of cleavage. Davis, a professor of English who teaches creative writing and journalism at New York's Baruch College, and was honored with a New York Association of Black Journalists Award for Excellence in Education, says, "I don't have a picture of the paperback cover anywhere in my office. When I went up for a promotion, I did not submit that paperback. I submitted the hardcover. I'm not proud of it."
Davis adds that she wasn't surprised when paperback sales didn't surge. "I've been to enough meetings of Black women's book clubs, and I've been told to my face, 'if this wasn't assigned, I wouldn't have picked this book up.'" Davis believes that her book proves a "bodice-ripper" cover won't increase sales of literary fiction, then adds, "but that won't stop publishers from making that desperate choice."
Brooklyn-based author Martha Southgate's paperback cover is even more salacious than Davis'. Third Girl From the Left, also a Hurston Wright nominee, was named Best Novel of the Year by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was short-listed for the PEN/Beyond Margins Award. The novel, Southgate's third book, explores three generations of Black women, from a family matriarch and avid movie-goer; to her daughter, who becomes a bit extra in films starring the likes of Pam Grier; to the granddaughter, who becomes a student filmmaker. The hardcover expresses the consistent beam of movie projection lighting all three women's lives with a theatre marquis design. The hardcover illuminates all three women's lives with a design suggesting the bright lights of a theater marquee. The effect is literary yet fun. The paperback, however, pictures a woman in a bathing suit, crouched in a provocative pose, all light brown skin and bouncy, blond-y hair, though Southgate's characters are all brown-skinned with either mid-century pressed curls, '70s afros, or '90s-style naturals.
When asked about the paperback cover, Southgate responds, "Well... I think that the paperback falls a little into the category of not quite being sure how to market this particular book. The paperback cover of Third Girl and the paperback cover of Bridgett Davis' Shifting Through Neutral are quite similar, though the books could not be more different. Folks in the biz just aren't sure how to reach the audience for these books through the jackets. I love my publisher, but that was a little frustrating."
Penguin Putnam Editor Stacey Barney, one of the few African Americans in mainstream publishing, would agree with Southgate. "There's no nefarious person behind a curtain saying, 'Let's get Black people,'" she asserts. Publishers, Barney says, "have to answer to the higher calling of how you make money. The cover is a selling point. Ultimately, we don't have enough Black people at these companies really making decisions." While Barney doesn't believe white publishing houses make jacket design decisions purposely "to degrade Black people," she does acknowledge, "a double standard when some white editors publish African American literature. They wouldn't let their white authors go out like that." The sexual content in much street lit is so poorly written that the genre can never be compared to Harlequin romances or the work of Jackie Collins. Barney says she is increasingly concerned, in thinking about the legacy of African American literature, with what she calls, "the clash of the idea of leaving behind a responsible cultural footprint and sales."
Tina McElroy Ansa has thought deeply about these issues as well. Like Chambers, Davis, and Southgate, this best-selling author of Ugly Ways, an NAACP Image Award nominee, employs sex in meaningful ways in her work without undermining the legacy of African American literature with every click on her laptop. She recently launched DownSouth Press, a publishing company that has published her fifth novel, Taking After Mudear. "I'm concerned," Ansa says, "as a publisher, and I'm also concerned because I'm a writer still. I'm concerned about what's driving the industry now. I'm very concerned about how we're seen culturally. What they're saying is to broaden our audience we need to sex it up. I'm not naÃ¯ve enough not to see sex sells. But as a publisher, as a Black person, to say that we need to sex up our literature to reach a wider audience is a very dangerous thing to do." From our time in Africa through the Middle Passage to slavery and now, Ansa says, "our stories are who we are. Our stories are us."
Ansa founded DownSouth Press partly to counteract the reality that increasing numbers of established writers of literary fiction can't get a book contract. She laments the subsequent loss of ideas and craft and reverential regard for our shared history as a people. Who we are, she believes, is being shaped by bean-counters looking at the bottom line and new writers pressured to please them with the cheap use of cuss words and sex scenes. With DownSouth Press and her Sea Island Writers Retreats, Ansa is actively working to nurture a new generation of literary African American writers.
Ansa's first novel, the best-selling Baby of the Family, was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her fourth novel, You Know Better, explicitly addresses what she calls the "hoochie mamma" phenomenon and received a Best Fiction Award from the American Library Association. With The Hand I Fan With, her third novel and winner of a Georgia Authors Series Award, Ansa fully entered the world of erotic fiction.
Ansa wrote her own erotic tale, she says, as "a tribute to Hurston, and my mother, who taught me the difference between trash and literature, between just sexual content and erotica." Ansa took four years to craft The Hand I Fan With, the longest she's taken to write any novel, she says, because she "wanted it to be literature. It was an erotic adventure for me to do this and do right by my characters."
Southgate, a Coretta Scott King Genesis Award winner for her debut novel, Another Way To Dance, also committed to craft when writing her explicit, beautifully written sex scenes in Third Girl From the Left: "I came to the sex scenes very gradually. In 'Show Business,' the short story that the novel grew out of, there is no sex of any kind at all. It is very much a mother-daughter story. But when I started writing and thinking about Angela as a fuller character and imagining her life in the film industry of the 1970s, sex naturally came up. It was a very big part of Hollywood culture at that time and Black people partook as liberally as whites. But I never intended or wanted it to be pornographic or salacious. Sex comes out of character, out of life choices, and as I worked on the novel I realized that I had an opportunity to investigate Black women's sexuality in a textured, nuanced way."
Southgate adds, "Long after I completed Third Girl, I found a remark attributed to James Baldwin - that there is a void at the heart of Black novels, that violence resides where the sex should be - and I thought that was very true. Because our sexuality has so often been linked with commerce and abuse, there has been, I think, a tendency not to explore it seriously in our fiction."
Penguin Putnam Editor Stacey Barney would likely agree. She believes Zane, for example, has done "a great thing for Black women." Rather than Black female sexuality relegated to rape or abuse, "Suddenly," Barney thinks, "with Zane, sexuality was something for Black women to have fun with."
Zane is an author, publisher, and employee of Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, where the author runs Strebor Books, and also where my editor, Malaika Adero, is a senior editor. Adero says there are more than 3 million copies of Zane's work in print. "I do think African American women in particular have suffered from being a bit saddled by sexual stereotypes," Adero says. She attributes some of the silencing of Black female desire to our religious culture and our history, where the good girl-bad girl dichotomy rendered Black women either the desexualized Mammy or the hyper-sexualized whore. Historically, Adero believes, African American women were never given permission to be just naturally sexual, "without ridicule, criticism, or judgment." Adero, through her Up South International Book Festival, an annual New York event that showcases literary authors, wants to try to expand the audience for great work.
She says that, "to some degree people who call themselves literary writers sound a little whiny because they aren't, all the time, looking at the reasons why other writers get more media attention and the attention of readers." But for Nick Chiles, a journalist who has co-authored with his wife, Denene Millner, a total of six non-fiction books and novels that, as their website states, "celebrate Black love," the proliferation of salacious street lit impacts writers in ways they don't even realize.
Chiles, who wrote "Their Eyes Were Reading Smut," a New York Times JANUARY 4, 2006 op-ed piece and definitive statement condemning the urban fiction phenomenon, asserts that, "On the artist the effect is dispiriting and overwhelming. This is an issue that plagues thinking African Americans no matter where you live. This phenomenon is like a weed that takes over the whole garden." Chiles says, "every writer I talk to, from Pearl Cleage to Bernice McFadden, says that, even though they're still getting published, they're getting published differently."
Without fanfare, with no marketing for publicity, Black writers of quality fiction and non-fiction see the millions made by the most popular street lit writers and wonder if they will ever be able to support themselves through their art, the way that many urban fiction writers support themselves through what Michigan-based non-fiction author Andrea Collier calls "Ho for Dough" books.
Because of street lit, even benign images of African Americans can marginalize a book. Chiles says his wife's Scholastic young adult book, Hotlanta, was ignored by booksellers at the Southern Booksellers Convention near the couple's Atlanta-area home. The cover, which Chiles describes as "like the cover of the Gossip Girls book but their skin is brown," signaled to those independent southern booksellers that the book was street fiction, something they did not want in the children's sections of their stores. "If it's a book with Black people on the cover," Nick says, "a realistic picture that's not too artsy, and has brown people on the cover, you have a whole section of booksellers that won't pick it up." While Chiles wonders how those booksellers could think that Scholastic would publish street lit, he realizes such an improbability is actually possible in the minds of some simply because of current trends. "The idea that you have to question Black people on the cover of your book is the poison" that comes from street lit, Chiles asserts.
Hyper-sexualized Black characters in urban fiction poison us all, even those of us who don't read the stuff, stuff too vulgar to be quoted in this magazine. Salacious street lit creeps into Black people's bone marrow, alters Black people's souls, diminishes our beautiful shining power as a people. The antidote exists. We simply must use our consumer dollars to support the rich, textured experiences of African Americans as rendered by authors who craft their work, honor our literary tradition, remember, clearly, with each word they write, the many ancestors who died so we could tell our stories, who died so we could put pen to paper at all.
Eisa Nefertari Ulen is the author of Crystelle Mourning and a member of the English Department faculty at New York's Hunter College. She lives with her filmmaker husband in Brooklyn.