African American Literature Defined
Understandably, a lot of African American literature was written to reflect the social and economic lives of a people in the United States. It includes authentic slave narratives, stories of overt and systemic racism, civil rights and cultural progress and regress. To ensure that the voice of the writer was authentic, works are not classified as African American literature unless the author is of African descent. It makes sense from the stance that we are molded from our experiences. Writing is an art form in which African Americans are able to express and expose the struggles of everyday life in the United States. The very fact that African American literature is considered a subcategory of American literature is, in and of itself, an example of that struggle. Although segregated, perhaps the most important byproduct of the many written accounts is that they provide an honest record of American history.
However, what happens when African American writers no longer write in a voice that uniquely expresses a cultural divide or experience? Is it still considered African American literature? This is where the confusion lies as all works from a writer of African American descent will be automatically defined as African American literature - no matter what. One reason given by the publishing industry for this practice was to make it easier for African American readers to find books that appeal to them. An implied reason is that other readers would not have an interest in books written by African American authors and could therefore, easily avoid them. These assumptions, which have led to the segregation of the written word for all writers of African descent, do a disservice to both readers and authors alike. It also does a disservice to a literary category which was meant to elevate voices, but has often served as a genre catchall or a miscellaneous classification in the publishing world.
This practice should change. In the literary world, we need an evolution.
With the use of technology, readers have the ability, whether online or in a brick and mortar store, to instantly read up on the author and check reviews if a book appeals to them. With this type of information available, perhaps it’s time to let readers discover authors, including African Americans, within their preferred genre. Perhaps it’s time to let the skills of the author and contents of their works speak for itself. It’s clear that the ancestry of African American characters such as Alex Cross and the various African American characters in The Help found a home with millions of diverse readers, even though the authors are white. So, there is no need to continue to separate African American writers of romance, or mystery, or horror, or any other genre based solely on the ancestry of the authors.
It’s time to let African American Literature be represented by the literature. After all, it’s what’s inside the books of African American authors the counts. Now if readers can only find them.
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