Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The Truth About The Chocolate Boy

He won't take you far.

Write about a black character and your book will be shoved in the AA section of bookstores and suffer a horrible death.

You can be mad.

You can be disgusted.

But what you cannot do is call this a lie.

We live in a society that has come a great way since the 1950s. African Americans can sit anywhere on the bus, apply for any job they so desire (though, they might not be considered equally), and can speak without scorn or prejudice.

The United States has a black President.

A black woman is one of the richest people in the world.

Yet segregation still undermines these achievements.

When was the last time you saw a novel written by an African American or a work that featured a black MC as the lead on the NYT children's Bestseller list?

Perhaps no one is writing about them, you might say. But how very wrong you are.

One particular case involves a friend of mine who lives in the Upper East Side. We used to talk about our WIPS during Math in Middle School. His was a bold and unique idea called Release the Beast that featured a gritty black boy as the MC.

"I think people will like it - it's different and has a kick ass hero that looks like me!"

This was before he or I understood the industry the way we do -  before ten year old boys became adults.

Fast forward twelve years later and his black lead is a white guy. Now, it is perfectly normal for an artist to switch his muse, but not for this reason, and I quote: "There really aren't any Black Authors of note who write for kids, and none on the "list". But beyond this, is the fact that black books die a slow death in the AA section of bookstores. Sure, I can write about one -- a great one -- but the reality is, it will get nowhere, and I want my book to go places -- It's just as good as any other."

He is selling out -- and this will hurt and offend a lot of people -- but can you blame him for wanting the best possible success rate for his work? Is he so wrong to seek riches and fame (and a spot on the list) like all authors out there?

The truth is, and it is a hard reality: books with black MCs don't sell as well as those with white ones. Regardless if written for kids or adults.

Our society has curbed racial segregation in almost every notable nook and cranny, but it is still prevalent in publishing.

Here is a short snippet from an article in the Huffingtonpost on this matter:

Publisher's Weekly's article "African-American Books in Today's Marketplace" makes clear that the "just Bess" attitude lives large in the American publishing industry. The article mimics the industry's tendency to believe that a) black writers write only for black audiences b) only black audiences could show interest in books by black authors, and c) books by black authors and/or with a black principal is inherently a "black book," and thus strangled in the market by the above limitations.
Today, there is a publishing ghetto. Mainstream white-owned houses have black imprints. Here, they publish books by, for and about black people. They publish under the assumption that none of our songs could be hummable outside of our own heads, that our experiences are more specialized, less "mainstream" and "universal" than those of any other ethnic group. In fact, they suggest that it's reasonable to believe that no one else gives a damn about our stories.

So folks will watch colored people on television and vote a black man as president, but they won't read about them? 

African American culture is everywhere and there is no denying it. Perhaps this is their way of preserving the last "white profession"? Maybe, just maybe, they're insinuating that, despite great strides, most white people are racist?

When a man has to change his lead's skin color because it is the only way his work will sell, there is a problem both internally and externally - with said author and the industry.

However, reading is such a personal experience, because it is an engagement of the mind and soul. We often envisage ourselves as the characters we read about; that's kinda hard when the person looks nothing like us, but, then again, an animal is far from human as it is possible to be, yet they sell...




Why not the story of a little black boy?

Well, one very plausible cause consists of four words: Write what you know. 

It is a tendency of any author to personify their experiences in their writing. It is often what makes it truly unique. Only in this case, who would've ever thought writing what you know, the oldest literary aphorism, could undermine an entire race? 


CBame13 said...

I wish I had a rebuttal or some way to disprove this post, but unfortunately for the industry you are totally right. I hate racism in all forms and it pains me to see one of my great passions so horrendously segregated. I've read a couple of great books with black leads, but always under the guise of a great book about a black boy rather than just a great book. The same could even be claimed for other nationalities, but to a lesser extent.

Well written and biting, but not necessarily what one wants to hear about the business. Good job.

khashway said...

This is just sad. What about Bud, Not Buddy and The Watsons Go to Birmingham. Those middle grades won awards. Didn't they make the list? Hmm... Now you've got me thinking.

M.B. West said...

Great post that brings a very serious issue to the surface. My best friend is black, and like me, adores YA. She's commented that there isn't a lot out there with strong, black MC's. And I can't disagree. It's sad. When the Katniss issue came up a few months ago, I asked her if she thought Katniss was white. She said yeah, she just assumed.

Roland D. Yeomans said...

How many Mexicans, Jews, or Moslems have you seen on the bestseller's list? America talks one way, acts another. Sad. But it is true for all of the world.

We must be the change we would see in the world. A great post, Roland

Roland D. Yeomans said...

I know I followed you when you first visited my blog. Blogger is playing with me! Sorry about Blogger snatching me away, Roland

T.D. McFrost said...

CB - My MC is blonde, and I know writers say readers don't like that, but that's how he pooped into my head - blonde!

A reader doesn't care what hair color the character has, so that rule is STUPID!

However, they do care about the ethnicity and that is sad. This will only change if a book by an AA reaches the height of success comparable to JK or Stephanie. Then and only then, will this prejudice fizzle.

And I strongly believe I will live to see that happen.

Kelly - I haven't read those books so I can't comment.

M.B. - Even in television! The top AA stars are mixed. And I know for a fact that even black people scorn others of their race that are "TOO BLACK", so it's never ending.

For some tiny reason, I feel African American are partly to blame, but that's for another discussion.

And when I read the Hunger Games, I thought Katniss was a light skinned, mixed, black girl. I was pleased, until I heard they're whitewashing her for the movie.

0.0 YA! That spoiled it for me.

Roland - Well, I'm latino, and I sure as hell on landing on the list someday. However, I think it is also a matter of taste.

Is the product good enough?

Perhaps there aren't a lot of colored folk on the bestseller lists, because their work lacks quality. It is possible. Also, the majority of Caucasians with dreams of being published far outweigh those of the minorities, so when a minority do decide to write a novel, they often write about one that details "their" struggles, in "their" community, whilst Caucasians write about anything.

I must also point out that the use of the word Moslem, is considered offensive. How do I know? Well, I have a Muslim friend who pointed it out.

Ya, your buddy Tyson loves everyone! :D

T.D. McFrost said...

1 more thing CBame:

I want to know your real name and I can't comment on your blog so please fix it.

Thanks :D

Ms. Yingling said...

And I'm always looking for books with multicultural faces on the cover. My only complaint is that 94% of the African American characters are portrayed as living in the inner city. I am constantly looking for books that reflect all of my students-- how about some midwest, middle class Somalian students? I'd need three copies of something like that!

CBame13 said...

Comments should work now... I tried a layout that seemed to be incomplete

Andrew Leon said...

There's so much wrong with the (traditional) publishing industry. The whole thing just needs to be torn down. It's archaic and exists only to feed off of others.

Michael Offutt said...

Great post. I think it pertains to all minorities whether they be hispanic or gay. The industry wants "white-washed" fiction. You even see it in the movies. Akira is being adapted for a full blown Hollywood movie treatment and the studio wants caucasian teenagers to play the parts of Tetsuo and Kaneda probably not to even mention the small but significant part that Akira plays in the whole thing. It's f*cking disgusting. I'm half-Asian and it's nothing but racism.

T.D. McFrost said...

Andrew - I totally agree! And, remarkably, with the spur of the E-Book revolution, we just might see our wish come true.

Michael - Gays and Blacks are the most segregated market in books. Asians...not so much. And I have three examples.

Over on Verlakay Message boards, I have three wonderful Asian friends who each got book deals with HUGE houses. Cindy Pon, author of the Silver Phoenix, is pubbed by Harper Collins. Her friend, Ellen Oh (see her name on the right corner), just got a three book deal from Harper. And last, but not least, my main man, Mike Jung, sold his Middle Grade series to Arthur Levine, an imprint of Scholastic.

The sad thing is, there are AA authors on that board who also have fantastic books, and they are yet to be pubbed, or if they have it's by a black imprint.

Hispanic people have it a bit rough, though I'm sure it's not anywehere near as bad as blacks or gays.

Okay, I'll stop being politically correct and just say it. As long as you have a fair skin color, you are not prejudiced in publishing -- yellow and even light brown. But have dark skin and look black, and you're limited by that.

I dare you to counter this fact!

Matthew Vanacore said...

Excellent post. Well-articulated and well-defended. I completely agree with your analysis.

Jennifer C. Poe said...

Great Post! Thank you for bringing this dialog to the forefront.

As a writer who is African American, I cannot allow myself to go into my career with limitations. I must focus on my story and characters and strive to tell the best story I can. I believe every writer should stay true to their story first and foremost. This is why I would never change the race of my characters for anything. And this is why I appreciate this quote from James Baldwin from 1961:

“I obviously wasn’t white. It wasn’t a question of so much wanting to be white, but I didn’t quite know anymore what being black meant. I couldn’t accept what I’ve been told. And all I was ever told in this country about being black is that it’s a terrible, terrible thing to be. Now in order to survive this you have to really dig down into yourself and recreate yourself really, according to no image which yet exists in America. You have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you and not this idea of you.”-James Baldwin 1961

The rest of the interview is here and as a writer of this post I thought you would appreciate it. I wish you the best of luck with your novels!

Jennifer C. Poe said...

Here are some black authors who have been on NYT best sellers list. I found some more who have been on recently as well! :D

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