Young Adult Fiction Has Yet to Hear The Voices of Young, Urban, and Black Readers
After Troy matter of factly told me, "I don't read books, they're not my thing," I asked him what was the last book he read. S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, he says. The irony is painful. You see, Troy sits in my English classroom at the Metropolitan Transition Center, the current Department of Corrections euphemism for the Maryland State Penitentiary in Baltimore. Troy is a grown man working on getting his GED. The last book he read was for an English class in the Baltimore City high school he dropped out of years ago. In what was no doubt a well-intentioned gesture to provide literary "relevance" to a young black male growing up in Baltimore, he was given a novel written by a 17-year-old white girl from Oklahoma about "gangs" of "greasers" and "Socs" (the Socials) who "rumble" with each other on their coming-of-age journey in America. Troy didn't think much of it, its "classic" status notwithstanding. He never read another book. They are not his thing.
Forty years since the emergence of the young adult genre with the publication of books such as Hinton's Outsiders and Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War, there has been no meaningful or substantive literary examination of what it means to be young and black and to grow up in a place like Baltimore. More painfully ironic still, because YA is devoted to plumbing the interior world of adolescence as one of trauma and alienation, surely the literary raw materials of coming of age in urban America. But the young adult fantasy worlds of wizard boarding schools, vampire loves, gossip girls, and "problem novels"--even ones that have urban black characters--that fill the shelves of the chain bookstores and are plied by classroom teachers and librarians have nothing to do with the universes of their charges: Park Heights, Poplar Grove, Eastside, Westside, Up-the-Hill, tha bloc. These names are Baltimore, but these places exist in all American cities, and their separate and unequal worlds have no literature for what we like to call young adults.
That they don't says much about our social fantasies of young, urban, black kids. The YA genre exists as a confluence of marketing strategy, pedagogy, and literary sensibility. Publishing houses want to sell books to their target markets; teachers and librarians act as gatekeepers with their awards, curricular plans, and didactic hopes; and writers find voice in their teenage characters. On the outside of that confluence are urban, black kids. You know, the ones we don't have much expectation for, who don't have internal lives worthy of literary expression other than a rap song. Maybe they are not even young adults in our prim literary taxonomy. They are rather the "achievement gap." They are dropout rates and problematic test scores, and God knows they are behavior problems, bound for prison, no doubt, to get their GEDs if they are lucky. "They don't read" quickly, easily, conveniently becomes "they can't read."
They suffer from what amounts to a literary invisibility. An invisibility for which Ralph Ellison's archetype still applies: "and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me." Baltimore kids and their lives are invisible in today's proliferating young adult book marketplace.
When urban, black youth do appear in YA fiction they are often merely objects of voyeuristic fascination, exotic others, tokens in the obeisance paid to an attenuated multiculturalism: Here, students, read about the young negroes in their habitat. No one speaks sociologically about the "ghetto" anymore because our fantasy of America doesn't permit its existence in the age of Barack Obama. Yet the ghetto still exists in the social imagination of those who won't travel to certain parts of town or anywhere after certain hours, or who won't send their kids to those schools, with those kids.
Take the literary industry of YA author Walter Dean Myers as an example. Myers' oeuvre regularly is the only young adult fictional treatment of the adolescent black experience to be found at your local big box bookstore. Over more than 50 books--many award-winning--Myers has been single-handedly responsible for educating suburban and private school kids about the lives of those who attend segregated city schools (along with the platitudinous ghetto-life memes of The Wire and various cinematic permutations of Menace II Society). To those city kids themselves, however, Myers is thin, saccharine stuff.
Take his 1999 novel Monster as a case in point. Often touted with book review hyperbole as his grittiest truth-telling tale, Monster is ultimately a pedantic cartoon. On its cover, next to all its award medals, is the state correctional mug shot of a young, black male--the perfect fantasy icon. Steve Harmon, the novel's hero, gets caught up, a good kid hanging with the wrong crowd. But in the end, in an ending we all know, young Steve is reconciled, chastened, and therapeutically massaged back into the arms of the nuclear family, the clan of troubled but good kids, our kind of kids. He was merely an interloper in that other world. Those other characters whom Steve got caught up with--James King, Bobo, Osvaldo--they are cartoons; they can't make the precious moral decisions, and therefore have a literary life, that Steve has to make. For they are those real urban, black kids, the kind who don't read books, don't write books, don't have character.
But perhaps the perfect example of how our literary imagination works when it comes to kids in places like Baltimore is captured in the story of Love and Consequences, the critically acclaimed memoir published in March by Margaret B. Jones about her life as a half-white, half-Native American girl raised by a African-American foster mother and who was a member of the Bloods street gang in South Central Los Angeles where she was a drug runner. The book was published by Riverhead Books, a unit of Penguin USA. The book's editor, Sarah McGrath, daughter of Charles McGrath, writer-at-large for The New York Times, spent three years working with the young author to tell her tale of adolescent inner-city life. The book was widely praised in reviews--"humane and deeply affecting memoir," Michiko Kakutani of the Times wrote--and a book tour was just getting under way when it was discovered that, oops, it was all fucking fake. Margaret B. Jones was really Margaret Seltzer, a San Fernando Valley girl who attended a private Episcopal day school and has never lived in the city, much less its inner sanctums.
The lugubrious Seltzer told the Times after she was found out, "I just felt there was good that I could do and there was no other way that someone would listen to it."
While the fake memoir has become a genre unto itself, we have in this tale of deception and credulity the staggering blindness, the invisibility, the frank callousness toward even the possibility of a voice or meaningful inner life of urban young people in America: If you exist, you have no voice. When we call you into existence we will consume you as so much belletristic accouterment.
A final measure of both urban kids' desire for literary connection and the absence of meaningful stories for that connection is the proliferation of urban fiction titles in the hands of Baltimore kids. Like the comic books of a previous era, hidden behind their textbooks, secreted into lockers and notebooks, are dog-eared Triple Crown publications and their progeny. Classics like Shannon Holmes' B-More Careful, Terri Woods' True to the Game, and Sister Soulja's The Coldest Winter Ever pass from teenage urban novel sophisticate into the hands of neophyte readers. By the thousands, these books circulate through schools, and at the Enoch Pratt Free Library they are steadily checked out and often stolen. Most significantly, they are read, eagerly, hungrily.
Urban fiction, hip-hop literature, and ghetto-fabulous novels will never be part of a curriculum, and they have to survive a gauntlet of censors, finger-waggers, moralists, and self-proclaimed literary do-gooders who only see titillating, melodramatic negativity in this body of work. But what the curricular underground of urban fiction represents is hunger. Hunger for visibility, hunger for the power, the self-recognition that only literature can provide. Where is the humanity of the 14-year-old duckin' and dodgin' in the courtyards of Latrobe Homes, in the remnants of Edmondson Village, along the length of North Avenue, and in countless other corners and dispossessed thoroughfares of the imagination in Baltimore?
The experience of having and recognizing your internal life represented in language, in art, is uniquely human. In Literature for Today's Young Adults, the standard academic text devoted to the genre, the value of such fiction is described as allowing adolescents to "talk in the third person about problems with which they are concerned." Young adult fiction has a history of acknowledging the power, the need, of giving relevant voice to the cognitive and emotional universes of young people. Without that medium--the books, the stories--young people "may become discouraged," Literature points out. Those young people "may join the millions of adults who no longer read for personal fulfillment and pleasure"--adults for whom books are not their thing.
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