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Big Books Feature

Urban Legends

Paul Coates and Rudy Lewis Offer Alternatives to the Current Crop of Contemporary Black Literature

Emily Flake

Big Books Issue 2005

Requiem for a Theme You know school is back in session when you see more required reading than escapist distractions in ...

Dire Education Jonathan Kozol’s The Shame of the Nation Fires Off a Crucial Wake-Up Call For Rapidly Resegregating Public School Systems—Such as Baltimore’s | By Michael Corbin

Navy Views Academy English Professor Bruce Fleming Takes Civilian Snapshots of Military Culture | By John Dicker

Cash Woes A New Spate of Books Show How the Love of the Green Infects Our Lives | By Joab Jackson

Urban Legends Paul Coates and Rudy Lewis Offer Alternatives to the Current Crop of Contemporary Black Literature | By R. Darryl Foxworth

Career High In Candace Bushnell’s Latest Book, It’s All Work and Not So Much Play | By Wendy Ward

Good Vibrations Margaret McCraw Focuses Her Psychotherapeutic Lessons on Relationship Woes | By Christina Royster-Hemby

By R. Darryl Foxworth | Posted 9/14/2005

When searching for a good African-American novel at the local bookstore chain, you may find limited options on the shelves. Teri Woods, Vickie Stringer, Shannon Holmes, and Carl Weber are among the authors driving the current black literary explosion, and though their respective books sell in droves, they differ greatly in subject matter and style when compared to that of lauded contemporary black authors Toni Morrison and John Edgar Wideman. This “urban fiction” is filled with expletives and unrepentant descriptions of violence and drugs, reminiscent of the work of Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines. And you’re unfortunately hard-pressed to find other genres besides urban fiction represented in “African-American” book sections. To many booksellers, urban fiction is African-American literature.

And this marketing works. When walking the streets of Baltimore, it is obvious that Shannon Holmes’ B-more Careful and the latest Zane books are en vogue—even though the city that reads them is home to two stalwarts of a bygone era in black publishing and literature: Paul Coates and Rudolph Lewis. The two industrious African-American men are part of a generation that preceded many of the contemporary best-selling black authors. They are, as the 59-year-old Coates says, “from the movement.”

That movement is the “Black Consciousness Movement” that Lewis says “took place here in Baltimore, between 1967 and 1974.” Before founding Black Classic Press in 1978, Coates served as coordinator for the Maryland chapter of the Black Panther Party. Likewise, Lewis was involved with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Walter Lively-led Union for Jobs and Income Now.

Today Coates primarily publishes rare, oft-forgotten texts of significance to the African-American community. The Black Classic catalog contains seminal works such as W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Negro, as well as obscure titles such as Historical Sketches of the Ancient Negro, originally published in 1920.

These documents are generations away from highly stylized urban fiction, whose proponents consider it a new black renaissance, an extension of the Black Arts Movement and the Harlem Renaissance. Of course, its detractors regard it as trash, replete with misspellings and grammatical errors, that is unfairly replacing canonical black literature.

Coates reports that he first witnessed urban fiction emerge “in the late ’90s. These writers were writing stories, a lot of the time about their own lives, fictionalized of course, and began publishing them. . . . They were telling their own story, not stories for the community.”

He is quick to point out that he isn’t one of the people who find contemporary black literature problematic. “I love it,” he says. “After reading [urban fiction], people become interested in their history, and that’s when they come to us. [Black Classic Press] wouldn’t publish any of that stuff, but I love to see people read.”

And reading people are. The commercial success of urban fiction is so apparent that it has received coverage from such diverse media outlets as Newsweek, Salon.com, and Black Issues Book Review in recent months; up for debate is its place in the annals of black literature. Jonathan Scott, a New York-based writer and Borough of Manhattan Community College professor of English, dissents from both opinions, writing in an e-mail that urban fiction is “a marketing label used to sell books whereas the Black Arts Movement came from the civil rights movement and Black Power. BAM and the Harlem Renaissance were closely linked to mass movements; urban fiction is a commercial category of writing with no connection to politics.”

And sell books urban fiction does. Vickie Stringer, the former cocaine dealer-turned-book publisher and author, sold 300,000 books in the opening 16 months of her company Triple Crown, getting herself a distribution deal with Atria Books in the process. Shannon Holmes’ Bad Girlz sold 50,000 copies in the first three weeks of its 2003 release.

Coates acknowledges that urban fiction reaches a wide audience, recalling a panel discussion that included Teri Woods, the author of books such as True to the Game and the Dutch trilogy, who spoke about the large volume of books she had in print. “We’re happy to put out 10, 15, 20 books,” Coates says, estimating the number of books his company produces in a given year. (He declined to give exact sales and production figures.)

Whereas Coates concerns himself with the paper and ink world of publishing, Rudolph Lewis takes advantage of a medium unavailable to his predecessors: the internet. “I knew keenly that print publication could not serve sufficiently what I wanted, namely, widespread dissemination,” says the 57-year-old Lewis. “Moreover, print publication had a low shelf life and poor distribution.”

Launched in the fall of 2001, his ChickenBones: A Journal web site (www.nathanielturner.com) has amassed a cult following, attracting about 5,000 visitors daily in 2005 and already exceeding 1 million visitors for the year. Traffic has risen steadily—from about 500,000 visitors in 2003 to an expected 2 million this year—and the site, described as a “journal for literary and artistic African-American themes,” has benefited from a wide range of contributors. Among them is Manhattan Community College’s Scott, who has written a book about Langston Hughes, Socialist Joy, currently seeking publication. He has high praise for Lewis’ internet endeavor.

“ChickenBones has a single-minded purpose and that’s to uplift and educate black people and help keep the tradition of freedom struggle alive,” Scott says via e-mail. “In the age of historical amnesia, the older writers featured by ChickenBones remind people that a black liberation movement actually existed, and that it produced a great variety of writing and that these writers are still writing.

“ChickenBones is not about the commercial market,” he continues. “A lot of urban fiction is awful because it’s written in the hope of selling millions of copies, whereas ChickenBones is interested in beauty and complexity, regardless if anyone reads it.”

But like Coates, Lewis has no ill feelings toward urban fiction. “So-called urban fiction is an interesting and curious development,” he says. “It has not been fully examined, but some of it is good writing. Technology has made self-publishing affordable, as a hustle, like hip-hop, which has influenced it greatly. But it has no ideological center, like BAM and the Harlem Renaissance.”

Wendell Shannon has a unique perspective on this matter. The former Baltimore drug dealer and prisoner is now a 41-year-old entrepreneurial owner of the Words by Wendell bookstore on West Franklin Street and a novelist whose next book, Business as Usual, is the sequel to his 2004 debut effort, For the Love of Fast Money. He is but one of the many young black authors nationwide looking to cash in on the revitalized black literature market, a market dominated by urban and commercial fiction marketed to a new generation of black readers.

ýI think this phenom is more of access than the repeat of the Harlem Renaissance, because in this instance we are self-supportive,” he says. “In the Harlem Renaissance, many of our talented writers still depended on widespread approval and support of races and cultures other than ourselves. It is unique to be black in America today. Our lives are beyond comparison. Our survival is different and we have to adapt to a changing environment. The proliferation of gangs, uncommon sexual experiences, and drugs are topics of interest. It is quite simple: The more traditional black literary stars are too far removed or out of touch with our everyday, common experience.”

The question thus becomes, is urban fiction African-American literature? Do the book titles presently filling “African-American Literature” sections represent the broad black experience or contain “other topics of interest” held by black readers?

When City Paper searched the shelves of a local Borders bookstore, only one James Baldwin book, Go Tell It on the Mountain, was discovered, while hardback editions of Toni Morrison’s Love were selling for $5.99, and neither was found in the “African-American Literature” section. Instead, Go Tell It on the Mountain, required reading for some high-school students, was found in the literature section; Love in the bargain section. Stocking the “African-American Literature” section? Zane, Springer, Woods, and Holmes, with no space for authors such as Z.Z. Packer or Octavia Butler, the MacArthur “genius” grant recipient noted for her science fiction.

As Shannon suggests, however, “everything moves in cycles.” But where does the black reader, uninterested in contemporary urban fiction or detached from the black community’s “common experience,” go when the bookshelves no longer reflect their interests? If you’re a Baltimorean, you might want to give Paul Coates or Rudy Lewis a visit.

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