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The High and Low of Black Literature

Mark Reynolds

What's happening now in black literature is similar to the smooth jazz/serious jazz dichotomy; urban fiction is getting more 'play' to the public, and fine literature is experienced only by the cognoscenti.

One of the big events on the black literary calendar is the Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards, given each year by the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation. The awards, now in their third year, honor the highest achievements by black authors, as part of the foundation's mission to encourage young, black writing talent. They're especially significant because they're one of the few accolades that come from a black literary organization.

This year's fiction winners were Mat Johnson's Hunting in Harlem (Bloomsbury, 2003) and, for debut fiction, Purple Hibiscus (Algonquin Books, 2003) by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Among the other nominees were Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks for her debut novel Getting Mother's Body (Random House, 2003), and Edward P. Jones for The Known World (Amistad, 2003).

Nowhere on the list of Hurston/Wright Award nominees were any of the slim trade paperbacks with alluring faces and bodies poised for action of some sort or another on the cover. None of the nominees can routinely be found for sale on sidewalk tables, alongside other tables hawking knockoff jewelry and bootleg DVDs. Zane, Vickie Stringer, and Omar Tyree are not routinely mentioned in the same breath as any of the award winners. Yet it's probable that their names are better recognized in the 'hood.

That's because they're part of a new landscape in black literature. This landscape is called urban fiction (or "hip-hop fiction"), and it has publishing companies salivating. Through word-of-mouth and the same entrepreneurial street hustle that fuels the dreams of countless aspiring rappers, people with stories to tell have found a way, thanks in large part to self-publishing, to reach readers who otherwise might not have cracked open a book for years. They've gone � again not unlike a lot of rappers � from selling their wares from the trunks of their cars to major deals with publishers anxious to tap into new audiences.

Zane, who has become the leading name in urban erotica, got a breathless profile in the 22nd August Fashion & Style section of The New York Times. Stringer, whose resume includes a seven-year stint in the pen for money laundering and drug trafficking, not only began to publish other urban fiction authors, but has a two-book deal with a Simon & Schuster imprint. And Tyree, one of the veterans of this relatively young game, spun himself off: his latest effort, Cold Blooded (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2004) is published under his pen name "The Urban Griot", and has a companion CD out on Hot Lava Entertainment; surely the straight-to-video DVD cannot be far behind.

All this is happening while Jones is becoming a star in American letters. The Known World (Amistad, May 2004), an intricately-woven saga of black slaveowners in the 1800s, earned him not only the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award, but a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. Yet Jones' achievement � almost unfathomable for a first novel � probably has gone unnoticed by the readers of Cold Blooded, a quickie tale of a young woman who falls in love with a hit man.

That's because urban fiction has more to do with pulp fiction (the genre, not the movie) than high art. The stories are simple, and they're told simply. Love, sex, and violence are pretty much the major plot categories in these novels. There's no attempt to resolve complicated story lines a la The Known World, no interest in finding new stories to tell or new ways to tell the old ones. Plumbing the depths of the human condition, searching for some universal truths about mankind . . . urban fiction authors leave all that to somebody else. Urban fiction is pop entertainment for readers that are more comfortable with the easygoing concoctions of Terry McMillan than with the knottier works of Alice Walker or Ishmael Reed.

Opinion is divided about the merits of urban fiction. Many booksellers and critics can't stand the stuff, belittling the amateurish prose of many of these books, even as they concede its ability to move product. Some folks think that by attracting new readers into bookstores, the market for more serious-minded efforts will eventually grow. I'm not prepared to buy that argument, if the current state of jazz is any indication.

See, once upon a time in the early '70s there was fusion; the adventurous melding of rock and jazz as popularized by Miles Davis and his cohorts, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, and others. Fusion's rougher, more exploratory side gradually lost its hard edge as the decade progressed, giving rise to a funkier sound (think Grover Washington Jr. and the Brecker Brothers). That would get watered down even further, leading to the rise, if that's what you want to call it, of Kenny G and the advent of "smooth jazz". This genre, which in all honesty makes my blood hurt, consists of faintly uptempo grooves, pleasant solos, and nary a scent of the risk-taking that characterized fusion back in the day; not for nothing is it derisively known as "happy jazz". It's the perfectly inoffensive soundtrack to elevators, dinner receptions, and any other social gathering which calls for innocuous, unthreatening background sound that won't offend anyone (except me, of course).

This strain of recorded sound has become hugely popular, to the point where even the lamest of these efforts will get airplay on commercial radio stations devoted to the form. Smooth jazz has grown so popular that it is, in effect, a separate genre from the "real" jazz that spawned it several degrees of separation ago. It's also eclipsed serious jazz in the broader marketplace, basically because it's an easier sell. It's closer in style and tone to other forms of pop music, and it's not something that requires any work or prior exposure to enjoy. Getting the most out of serious jazz asks the listener to pay some attention, know something about the history of the music, and remain open to what the players are trying to do on a particular piece. As with classical music, the audience for serious jazz is devoted, but not anywhere near the size of Kenny G's. You won't hear too many Miles Davis solos in dentist offices, and you certainly won't see many serious jazz CDs for sale, bootleg or legit, anywhere in the 'hood. (Most serious jazz nowadays is released on smaller labels that are hard to find outside of specialty stores or mega-stores, and both of those shopping experiences are in short supply in American inner cities � but that's another subject).

Once upon a time, it was the hope that smooth jazz listeners would eventually find their way to the higher life forms of the genre � as if by osmosis, I suppose, unless there was something to spark some curiosity to dig further. But smooth jazz has grown, in terms of mass appeal, to the level that a fan can become totally awash in the stuff, blissfully unaware of modern masters like David Murray and Andrew Hill, not to mention the likes of Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk. (The record industry plays a part in this as well, but that's yet another story.)

What's happening now in black literature is similar to the smooth jazz/serious jazz dichotomy. Readers of the books feted by the Hurston/Wright Foundation aren't going to be interested in the quickie ghetto tales of Tyree and company. Stringer's audience isn't likely to gravitate to Jones' work, let alone Hurston's or Wright's, strictly from reading Stringer's books. This is not to say that urban fiction has no literary merit, or that serious literature cannot speak to masses of people. Nor is it to demean those who might not know that headier stuff is out there, or those who may know but don't care: people have the right to like whatever they choose to like. Rather, this is yet another example of how, in America, and that includes black America, art and entertainment seldom meet.

This phenomenon is well-documented throughout our mass culture: Madonna outsells Bob Dylan (at least, she used to); big-budget shoot-'em-ups do way more box office per screen than Woody Allen's quirky ensemble pieces, and so on. But this might be news to those who think that since we make such a big deal of Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison and other such titans during Black History Month, since we make such a point of honoring music legends from Duke Ellington to Donny Hathaway, black people must obviously love and support the arts. Think again. It's not that we don't appreciate the arts when we have the chance, it's just that we actually get those chances less and less frequently.

Support for artists and cultural endeavors has always been tenuous at best in black America, but now it's worse than ever. Black heritage museums in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit and elsewhere are, for various reasons (including poor management, but usually boiling down to a lack of patronage) in dire straits. Many black theater companies are struggling, and the venerable Dance Theatre of Harlem suspended its current season before it began in earnest. Harlem's Hue-Man Bookstore is the rare exception of a thriving house of letters in the 'hood; throughout the summer, Washington, DC's Sisterspace & Books has been fighting a major rent hike to stay open. Coverage of culture in black media is all but nonexistent, save for blockbuster events and Black History Month.

Not at all unlike the rest of America, black folk may not patronize serious art, but they'll shell out bucks for good entertainment. The Broadway audience for August Wilson's newest installment in his chronicle of the 20th century black American experience, Gem of the Ocean, will be considerably less black than the one at whichever touring black indie theater production next rolls through town. These melodramas, full of outsized characters and performances based on familiar archetypes, make no pretenses towards higher ambitions, just as urban fiction authors aren't trying to pick up where Ellison left off. But the audiences love these plays, they enjoy seeing the B-list TV stars and recording artists who pick up a check doing these shows, and they have no idea August Wilson has a new play on the boards.

If you know of a way to guide even a sliver of the black entertainment audience into the black arts scene, please contact a black artist or arts institution immediately. Maybe someone could sell Alice Coltrane's new CD Translinear Light (Impulse) next to the latest batch of hip-hop mixtapes. Maybe Jones could put a barechested young stud or scantily clad hottie on the cover of his next book. Or maybe an urban fiction fan might be intrigued by Eddie B. Allen Jr's new biography Low Road: The Life and Legacy of Donald Goines (St. Martin's Press). Goines was to urban fiction what the Last Poets were to rap: godfather to a movement that emerged long after his heyday. Goines, a one-time drug addict and criminal, found his voice by translating his harsh experiences into novels that continue to sell 30 years after he was murdered. His tales of the ghetto underlife crackle with a resonance today's urban fiction writers can only hope to emulate. Low Road is the first biography to tackle Goines' journey from anonymous junkie to acclaimed author, and to make the case for his importance in black American literature.

Low Road could well turn out to be a more viable bridge from urban fiction to the richer pleasures of black literature than The Known World. Goines' characters, indeed his life story, hew infinitely closer to the urban fiction milieu than Jones' slaves and slaveowners. And Goines' tale might lead a reader to other author biographies, or in another direction entirely: perhaps towards crime stories by Walter Mosley or Chester Himes, perhaps towards other novels of Goines' era like Toni Morrison's Sula (1971), maybe even Claude Brown's classic Manchild in the Promised Land (Macmillan, 1965). Granted, all that may seem like a gigantic leap of faith, a temporary setting aside of the practical to imagine the possible. But isn't that the essence of art?

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