Black Literature in the '90S

By Phillip, Mary-Christine | Black Issues in Higher Education, May 16, 1996 | Go to article overview

Black Literature in the '90S


Phillip, Mary-Christine, Black Issues in Higher Education


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 Jerry 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

State& 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. …

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