Friday, July 21, 2006
Published in USA Today…
‘Gangsta lit’ poisons black audiences
Commentary by Yolanda Young
Gangsta rapper 50 Cent has partnered with MTV/Pocket Books to create graphic novels as explicit as his lyrics: “They say I don’t sound like a killer well how a killer sound? I bet I grab a foe pound and back that ass down.” (I’m A Hustler 2000).
“Fitty” will fit right in to the gangsta lit/ghetto fiction/street lit genre in which venereal disease and automatic handguns are practically characters.
A 2004 study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that Hispanic and black males had the lowest rates of literary reading, at 18% and 30% respectively. Though reading rates are falling for all groups, from 1992-2002 African-Americans had the largest decline, from 45.6% to 37.1%.
Reading literature is important because it expands one’s vocabulary, perspective and intellectual capacity. And though some might argue that any reading is better than none, the reader ingests poison when metaphor and imagery are replaced with sex, violence and expletives.
There is a lot of it out there already. Though it is difficult to obtain accurate sales numbers because of their guerrilla marketing tactics (these books can be found at car washes, street vendor tables and martini parties), the telltale of their profitability is that titles such as G-Spot, Bad Girlz and Payback Is a Mutha are showing up in mainstream publishers’ catalogues.
At a forum on the subject at this year’s Book Expo in Washington, it was suggested that these books merely provide readers with what they crave and know. Perhaps in part, but these publishers are just doing a better job of reaching blacks in less traditional settings.
Consider Vickie Stringer, who was in prison from 1994-2001. She self-published her first novel, Let That Be the Reason, which depicts the lives of women in drug trafficking. In 2001, she founded Triple Crown Publications, the imprint of choice among many young black readers. Her publishing house is named for the crew she hung with during her drug days. Stringer seems to hustle books much the way she did drugs.
An unseemly prospect to many, but so too was the dearth of blacks I found at a Washington book signing for the thirtysomething African-American writer Colson Whitehead. In their stead was a crowd of white seniors who live in the affluent neighborhood where the signing was held. The MacArthur Foundation Fellowship recipient and writers of his ilk must do what 50 Cent, Stringer and even Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison have done — find and seduce a black audience. Morrison found hers at church gatherings for her Love tour, but they can also be found in classrooms, social clubs and beauty salons.
Distasteful maybe, but not as much as a generation consuming venom.
Yolanda Young is author of On Our Way To Beautiful.