Is Reading Segregated?

I started wondering about this anew when I read a comment to my previous blog about IR romance. I think one thing that many Black writers believe is that most white readers are not particularly interested in Black lives. Or maybe that's not true. Maybe it's more accurate to say that white readers appear most interested in those aspects of Black lives that distinguish the collective Black experience as they perceive it, from the collective white experience.


Hence, books about Black race-based trauma have extraordinary crossover appeal in both the literary community and among readers. If you can competently execute a novel about the horrors of slavery, Jim Crow, or modern-day racism, editors sit up and take notice, and feel good about themselves doing it. I say that not to slam editors but to make the larger point that the result is a relative lack of visibility of books about the Black experience as Black people actually experience it---not simply bemoaning racism and the remnants of slavery, but living and working and falling in and out of love, raising children, marrying, divorcing, contemplating moving away from the city and into a cabin in the woods ... all of those things.


Books by white writers routinely achieve literary acclaim with as slender a pivotal plot point as, I don't know, a woman contemplating leaving her husband; or a man realizing he will ditch his fiancee because his reluctance to go through with the purchase of a house means he's having a deeper existential crisis. Critics wax on about how poetic the language, how beautifully rendered the characters ... but really, I think, they may easily find something in these characters and their dilemmas that resonate with them personally as humans. Which is fine, since that's precisely the feeling that "good writing" is supposed to produce. But here's the problem, the corollary to that is that when the characters are Black, it is all the more difficult for the white-dominated literary world to see themselves and relate. The result? The prominence and acclaim given mostly to books by Black writers that produce car-wreck curiosity about Black lives.


I have a theory that, realizing this, Black readers are increasingly seeking out Black writers trusting them to deliver a more nuanced representation of our lives. Usually though, we don't read Black writers exclusively, because there was a period where if you wanted to read a specific genre at all, white writers were the only dish on the menu. And so Black readers have developed allegiances to scores of writers who don't reflect their lives, but nevertheless entertain them in the way they want to be entertained. But now, if you're Black and an avid reader, you have a greater variety of choices and can if you're tenacious, find books about Black women contemplating leaving their husband; or a Black man realizing he will leave his fiancee because his reluctance to go through with the purchase of a house means he's having a deeper existential crisis. Books that don't only entertain you, but reflect you. In other words, Black readers choose books that affirm that not only when staring at the wrong end of a gun, or flinching under the lash of massa's whip, but even in all their mundane moments, Black Lives Matter.


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