Black Literature in the '90S: This `Renaissance' Calls for Self-Reliance

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Black Literature in the '90s: This `Renaissance' Calls for Self-reliance.

In 1948, Zora Neale Hurston published an article in the Negro Digest titled "What White Publishers Won't Print." Today, the issue turns not on what white publishers won't print, but rather, what they will print when it comes to African-American literature.

When Terry McMillan's "Waiting to Exhale," Toni Morrison's "Jazz" and Alice Walker's "Possessing the Secret of Joy" all appeared on The New York Times Best Sellers' list at the same time for several weeks in a row in 1992, the cross-over popularity and appeal of Black women writers was hailed by many scholars and critics as dramatic proof that Black literature was about to have a Second Coming.

Hurston, one of the charter members of the dazzling Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s that featured a Black creative explosion heard around the world, is not alive to witness this current mass-produced blitz of African-American-written romance, mystery, science fiction and self-help books -- all of a decidedly middle-brow orientation. It has been referred to by some as a "new renaissance" -- but is it? And who reaps the financial bonanza?

The critical acclaim and popular success of "hot" Black writers does not obscure the troubling fact alluded to by Hurston nearly 50 years ago: The publishing industry in the United States is still dominated overwhelmingly by white males, and the role of editor at these houses remains, by and large, the untrammeled province of white males and females.

According to a 1991 study by the Association of American Publishers, African Americans occupy a mere 4.6 percent of the editorial and management positions in the $20-billion-a-year book publishing industry.

Although the U.S. Department of Commerce has no figures available on the numbers of African American publishers, Commerce officials describe it as "very small."

White Grip

Given the white grip on publishing the question, then, is whether the industry can adequately accommodate the new Black voices, achieving for them exposure to the audience they address.

Playing "devil's advocate" at the recent Fourth National Black Writers Conference held at Brooklyn's Medgar Evers College, was President Clinton's favorite mystery writer, Walter Mosley, widely known for his wildly popular Easy Rawlins Mystery Series, now published in six languages. One novel in the series, "Devil In a Blue Dress," was recently turned into a critically acclaimed film directed by Carl Franklin and starring Denzel Washington.

"White people," said Mosley, "are the only ones who can tell people about writers. I don't like it, but it is true. The truth is that the cultural backbone of America is not only its literature, it is the book publishing industry. Our history, our culture, our cinema, our literacy and our morality are based on people in that business and most of the people who dominate that business are white men. Liberal white men, who dine with Nelson Mandela, then go to their [private] clubs and talk about what Mandela said."

Mosley, who also serves as Visiting Artist-in-Residence at New York University, knows whereof he speaks. Publishing industry surveys and a July 1995 Village Voice article, "The Unbearable Whiteness of Publishing," bear him out. According to the article, "White editors exercise tremendous control over a range of social and policy discussions, including debate over affirmative action. Yet, as an industry, publishing is whiter than most."

The publishers, the editors, the designers, the sales force, the publicity, the foreign rights experts, the reviewers -- "98-plus percent are white," said Mosley.

"[They are] unapologetically white. We have to worry about our representation in mainstream and international publishing. Without [Black] editors and publishers in positions of power, 10 years from now, we will be looking for a new renaissance because the people who forgot the [Black authors] before us were white people in publishing. …