Learning from examples
by maureen dezell
Urban literature has been around since the mid-20th century, when authors such as Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim first published semi-autobiographical stories of drug use, gang life, and crime in low-income black and Latino neighborhoods, says Amy Pattee, associate professor of library and information science at Simmons College and an expert on young adult and urban fiction.
However, she says, “Its popularity has definitely picked up” since the mid-1990s, driven by a generation of younger writers who came of age in the hip-hop music era, as well as by the runaway success of books such as Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever, one of the first titles picked up by a mainstream publisher (Simon & Schuster), and Push, by Sapphire (Knopf), the novel that inspired the movie Precious.
It is difficult to gauge the success of urban fiction by conventional measures, according to Pattee. Nielsen BookScan does not track it as a separate genre, and, even if it did, it would miss a significant segment of the market. Like hip-hop musicians before them, many street-lit authors print their own work and sell it out of car trunks, on street tables, and at mom-and-pop stores. Some are extremely successful.
Teri Woods, who self-published her first novel, True to the Game, in 1999, is now a publisher. Vickie Stringer wrote her first, autobiographical novel, Let That Be the Reason, while serving time in a federal prison for dealing drugs, using her life story “as an example to warn others of the dangers of the drug game,” she has said.
She published and distributed that book, which eventually sold more than 100,000 copies, and parlayed its success into Triple Crown Publications, which now boasts close to 100 titles by some four dozen other hip-hop authors.
Some established African American writers, authors, and artists look askance at the quality and marketing of street literature. Often lightly edited and filled with errors, and bearing suggestive titles and lurid covers showing men who look like drug lords and women dressed like prostitutes, street-lit bestsellers fill several shelves at many black bookstores. And they sit side-by-side with fiction by Toni Morrison and classics like W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk in the African American literature sections of Barnes & Noble stores, crowding the limited retail space dedicated to works by black authors, some say. (Bestselling street-lit author Omar Tyree [Flyy Girl] announced in 2008 that he was retiring from writing urban classics because public appetite for “gold-digging, ghetto girl, gangster-love, drug dealing stories” had diminished publishers’ interest in “positive, progressive” African American literature.)
While none of the widely available street lit titles are specifically aimed at the young adult market, there is no question that girls as young as 12 and 13 of all races and backgrounds read books written to appeal to their mothers and older siblings, according to Pattee. And that presents teachers and librarians with a quandary: Should they encourage young African American female readers, who as a group lag behind Asian and Caucasian female peers in reading assessments, to read the books they want to read, even if they are books of uneven quality and unsavory content?
In “Critical Readings: African American Girls and Urban Fiction,” published in the April 2010 Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, author and literacy expert Simone Gibson argued that, if students want to read books like Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever, which has sold more than a million copies, they may be more open to engaging with texts they would otherwise rebuff, and possibly would become better readers as a result.
Like Allyssa Harris, Gibson envisions a new role for hip-hop lit: teaching tool.