Last week I discovered a recent addition to my neighborhood nestled between a boarded-up restaurant and a flower shop: a black bookstore. I love books, so I smiled with excitement as I walked through the door. The clerk gave me a warm welcome.
I scanned the shelves eagerly. But missing were all my favorites: James Baldwin, Ernest Gaines, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Octavia Butler and Tananarive Due. I could spot nothing mysterious, compelling, historical or poetic. There was only shelf after shelf of street lit, aka urban drama, aka, for short, ghetto fiction.
The good thing about ghetto fiction is that it's easy to spot. Just look for:
An obnoxiously colorful, shiny cover, featuring a sepia-colored woman with a round ass and big cleavage. She'll be wearing little clothing, but plenty of attitude. She'll be bent over, leaning back or about to lick something. If there's a male on the cover, he'll be shirtless or wearing a wife beater, and standing near a shiny SUV or sports coupe, alone or with his boys.
Key words, especially in the title: "candy," "stiletto," "poppin'," "shiesty," "nasty," "grimey," "hustler," "'hood," "gangsta" and "ghetto."
Bad editing, along with an abundance of poor grammar, typos and the words "bitch" and "fuck."
Ghetto fiction is everywhere. You can't pass a street vendor, beauty salon, teenage girl at a bus stop, the African-American section of a chain bookstore, or even an independent black bookstore without tripping all over it.
You could argue that ghetto fiction is giving black authors a voice-especially black women, who then use that voice to bitch about their struggles as single women, and about the no-good men in their lives.
No question ghetto fiction has black people reading (blacks spent $257 million on books in 2004), and especially young black people, who for some unfathomable reason never seem to be exposed to the works of Zora Neale Hurston or James Baldwin.
"It's easy to make. It's palatable," says Marc Lamont Hill, assistant professor of urban education at Temple University of the ghetto genre. "But it also doesn't interrupt any of our concepts of young black people, so the market loves it. That's the danger of these books-that even though you have young people reading, these books reinforce stereotypical images of young black people."
James Baldwin wrote eloquently about the complexities of race, politics, poverty, sexuality and humanity. He captured the gripping pain of his Harlem community and the effects of poverty on the people who lived there. In the end he left something to be learned, valued and gained.
Compare that to ghetto fiction, which often tells the story of a "fly nigga" or "sexy hustler" who's running a "lucrative drug business." The storyline invariably becomes complicated by a shoot-out, a brutal murder or a prison sentence.
There are also the many tried-and-true stories of smart and sexy women who act indescribably stupid. They get run over again and again by bad men and sexual relationships until they finally find their soulmates-thanks to girlfriends who hold their hands or stab them in the back along the way.
In ghetto fiction, as in today's hip-hop lyrics, the lives of the people who live in the 'hood are portrayed as stimulating and glamorous. The real-life desperation and need for redemption are ignored.
But the most dangerous thing about ghetto fiction is that it silences serious authors.
In last month's New York Times poll of 200 critics, editors and writers, Toni Morrison's Beloved was named the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.
Morrison is both a Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winner. Although her work is sometimes criticized as being needlessly complicated, she's generally accepted as a literary genius. And her Beloved-about an ex-slave named Sethe whose house is haunted by her deceased baby daughter-will go down in history as a definitive work on race and slavery, much like Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird and Uncle Tom's Cabin - all written by white authors.
But Beloved, Morrison's fifth book, was nowhere to be found at my new neighborhood bookstore. Neither was another book on the list's honorable mention (and one of my favorites), The Known World by Edward P. Jones.
"Because people are buying these types of books," says literary consultant Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati, "really good fiction is being tossed to the side." As a result, Sgambati says, "literary authors have difficulty finding an audience because these kinds of books aren't being published. It's sad, but it's not the end of the literary movement. It's just a stage."
During my visit to my new neighborhood bookstore, I searched in vain for something meaningful. I grabbed a book off the shelf and stared at the cover-it featured a cadaver at the morgue with a toe tag.
"Oh, that's a good one," said the clerk, a caramel-complexioned woman with short golden blond hair. She pursed her lips and nodded her head knowingly. "Everybody loves that one."
"Really?" I blurted out, before softening the slight with a smile. I think it's my responsibility to support black businesses, but there was nothing there for me to buy. I couldn't get out fast enough.
Later, still searching for a book to read, I settled on Katherine Dunham's biography A Touch of Innocence, which had been sitting on my bookcase at home. It was certainly more inviting than the book I'd pulled down from the shelf at the bookstore, titled Sugar to Shit.
Not the kind of title destined to be beloved.