Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Segregation and Literature

This is the cover of the latest Publishers Weekly--a magazine about books and publishing. In case the print is too small for you to read it, the words under Afro Picks say "new books and trends in African-American publishing." Calvin Reid at Publishers Weekly (who edited the feature and, with the creative director, chose the cover image and tagline [and he's also black]) explained that the "image is from the book 'Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present' by Deborah Willis (Norton). The image is called Pickin’ by photographer Lauren Kelly. Ms. Willis is chair of the photo dept. at NYU, a MacArthur Fellow & a scholar of black photography and representation."  A lot of people did not like this cover
     Some comments: the image is "aesthetically offensive," portrays black literature as "tribalistic," portrays the "black Medusa," is outdated and anachronistic, is simply ugly, is cheap and tasteless. Some thought it was a bad pun. Some didn't like boiling down all African-American lit to this one image. Still, some people did like it, thought it was funny or clever, and told others to "lighten up." Calvin Reid apologized to those who didn't like it.
     Part of the issue, I think, is the way publishers categorize literature (some would say "segregate") by author or subject--in some sense making African-American literature a genre. Thus, when you go into a bookstore, you might see an area or shelf labeled African American where books by African-American authors reside. Some black authors have been able to "cross over" from the labeled shelves to the general shelves--Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Colson Whitehead, and others--but many haven't. And then, the question is, how many non-African Americans cross over and go to those labeled shelves? I don't think I ever have.

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