Dear Oracle at Literati and Bastion of Puissance,
Can a book be African-American? If so how does it apply? I’ve never seen an Alex Cross novel by James Patterson labeled AA, but that brother Alex showl is Black. C.E Murphy’s Negotiator Series (UF) doesn’t bear the label AA but the main character is a Black woman with two Black parents (oh my gawd). Meanwhile, L.A. Banks lobbied to get her urban fantasy series removed from the AA section. Does this mean only books with a Black protagonist written by a Black author are African-American? The theory is verisimilar but what happens when a Black author writes all white or, heck, all Asian characters? Would those books become AAFWF or AAFAF (African-American For White/Asian Folks)? Why aren’t novels by authors of other ethnicities similarly color-coded?
Yours in obsidian, That-Chick-With-Two-Persian-Names-That-Both-Mean-Sweet
Ah, dearest Author-friend, in order to answer this question we must first explain to you something very important about white people. When we are asked to talk about race, we tend to freak the fuck out all over the place. The reason, of course, is that talking about race is dangerously close to acknowledging the existence of racism, and if white people acknowledge the existence of racism, we might have to DEAL WITH racism. SOMEONE MIGHT EVEN CALL US RACIST. Which is actually the worst thing that can happen IN THE ENTIRE WORLD. It is worse than meteors of fire falling from the sky and eradicating the entire earth, worse than a lake of magma opening up and swallowing the North American continent, worse than an army of demons emerging from the depths of hell bearing many hot pokers with which to poke us. THAT IS HOW BAD IT IS. Surely it must be worse than EXPERIENCING racism, right? RIGHT? IT'S TOTALLY WORSE.
Why is this an important thing to understand? Publishing is a bunch of white people. (That's not negotiable, Author-friends. We bombed interviews at every one of those publishers, remember? And you KNOW when you are in the most diverse city IN THE FUCKING WORLD, and you walk into an office that is the entire floor of a building, and every single person in that office is white except the receptionist, there is a PROBLEM.) Bookselling less so, and things are changing (at an admittedly glacial pace), but basically the people making the decisions about what gets published, and where it goes on the shelf, are going to be almost exclusively, if not exclusively, people who are not people of color. We do repeat this a lot? It's true? But people are still fucking ARGUING about it so apparently we have to. NEWS FLASH: THE PUBLISHING, IT IS NOT DIVERSE. And unsurprisingly, when a very undiverse group of people is making decisions for everybody, things tend to go horribly awry.
The decision to shelve books in the African-American Corner (always, always, in the darkest, hardest-to-find part of the store, maybe with spiders in it) comes from a well-intentioned place. (It's the same thinking that leads to the creation of the Gay Corner, where Gay Novels go to die.) There are so few books about black people that it's easier to find them if they're all in one place, right? What if some person of color wishes desperately to find a novel representing his or her experience? Way simpler if there's a shelf devoted solely to that purpose, right? The problem with that reasoning is that people of color, like any other people, look for novels in the fiction section. The other problem? There's no logic to the system of African-American Corner. Who gets sent there varies wildly from bookstore to bookstore. Some writers are fancy enough to get promoted to the Universal Experience Shelf (i.e. fiction): Toni Morrison gets shelved under M. Ralph Ellison? E. And of course, as you've already pointed out, books by white people about black people don't get relegated to the African-American Corner; they get shelved in fiction, which only serves to reinforce the fucked-up idea that fiction by black people is only of interest to other black people, whereas fiction by white people is universal, even if it is ABOUT black people. Everyone knows white people like litterah-chewah, so literary fiction by famous black people is okay to shelve with the white people books, but of course white people wouldn't want to read genre fiction by black people, so that ought to go sit in the corner, unless it is by Walter Mosley. (We could go on a whole awesome tangent about how classism and racism intersect in TOTALLY HEINOUS WAYS when it comes to divisions between "genre" and "literary" fiction but we are getting sleepy.) Novels by authors of other ethnicities sometimes ARE divided, depending on the bookstore. Basically? If you think about it for too long, your head will blow up. BECAUSE IT MAKES NO SENSE.
So what's a reader to do? At major chain stores, shelving decisions aren't up to the staff of an individual store; almost every decision about what goes where and what gets bought is being made by a group of people in an office. Those people are probably dudes in New York. We have previously found the emails for every higher-up at both Borders (RIP) and Barnes and Noble with a little diligent googling, but you defs are not gonna get those bros on the telephone or anything. However, you CAN engage with the amazing, fabulous staff of your local INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORE. It is so important to have these conversations, to acknowledge the problem is real and it is huge and it is not going away. People of color deserve to see themselves represented in the books they're reading, and they shouldn't have to go to the back of the bookstore to find those stories. And guess what? White folks can read those books, too. They're not, like, contagious.
Racism is fucking messy, and painful, and hard to deal with. It hurts. There aren't right answers. There is no one in charge, to solve the problem. But nothing's ever going to change until we go to that hard and honest place of really and truly engaging with one another (memo to white folks: "engaging" involves "listening" which involves "not talking"). Creating genuine community in an era of terminal-stage capitalism is no easy task, but we're gonna go out on a limb and say it is the most important task of all. You think it's just books? It's not just books, it's the whole world. This stuff matters.