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What is black writing?

Remember the fuss when Publishers Weekly decided to promote a piece on new books and trends in African-American writing with a picture of a naked black woman? No, neither do I but I wasn’t part of the twitterverse back then.  The year was 2009 and the woman in question had an Afro that was covered in Afro-picks. Not only that, each pick had a little tiny fist on the handle – a la the Black Panther salute.  The picture was headlined ‘Afro Picks’. Get it? The pun didn’t go down too well and the story, which was meant to be about how difficult it is for black writers and publishers, changed to one that questioned how the esteemed editors of Publishers Weekly could get it so wrong.

A similar furore emerged two years earlier when Penguin celebrated 70 years of publishing by issuing 70 new short titles (Pocket Penguins) of which only two were by non-white authors. They chose to omit James Baldwin, considered to be one of the most important figures in black literature while including the likes of Jamie Oliver.  Many people, Bonnie Greer among them, were outraged at what appeared to be a snub to black writing.  Penguin with startling honesty, claimed that race just didn’t enter into it when considering which titles to include and which to leave out and that this was either a good thing or a sign of their blindness.

Had I known about either, I would have joined in the debate, but I would also have had to ask the question, just what is black writing?

Charles H. Fuller writing for the Liberator magazine in 1967 described it as the self-expression, born directly from the collective social situation that African-Americans find themselves in; an art form that is directly related to their historical, economic, educational and social development.  That chimes with the thoughts of a colleague who lectures on the Professional Writing course at University College Falmouth who views the term as being used mostly to describe fiction that includes sub-genres of black women’s writing like Toni Morrison or Alice Walker who write about the experience of being black.

But there is the wider, more pervasive view, that black writing is simply writing by black authors with some going further in allying that view with the notion that such writing is also exclusively for a black audience.  That could explain why some booksellers like W.H.Smith set aside shelf-space exclusively for ‘black writing’ or it could suggest that there is simply a general lack of understanding about not only what black writing is but how to market work by black authors.  The press release for Diran Adebayo’s debut novel, ‘Some Kind of Black’ said that it represented a great breakthrough for “coloured” British writers.  (Note: no one says coloured anymore. Long story. Different post.)  The sub-text is that there is a need to market the work of black authors differently to works by other authors.

I think that its worth putting the question to publishers and authors alike in an attempt to pin down just what black writing is as well as what it isn’t and whether the label serves any useful purpose at all.  What do you think?

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