Published on Thursday, December 4, 2003 by Working for Change
Searching for James Baldwin
Great Black Authors Segregated from 'Literature' Shelves onto 'African American' Shelves
by Byron Williams
Last week, in an attempt to get a jump on my holiday shopping, I found myself in one of those large, impersonal, mega book/music/café establishments looking in the literary section for a hardcover version of James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain. Besides the fact that I allowed convenience to overrule my commitment to support small, privately owned bookstores as opposed to the prefabricated industrial size, what I discovered left me in disbelief.
Strolling through the literary section, I could not find any work by Baldwin. How could this be? How could any reputable bookstore stock their shelves without the works of James Baldwin? Ernest Hemingway was there, T.S. Eliot was there, William Faulkner was there, and Mark Twain was there, but no James Baldwin.
Hoping that they had merely sold out, I was compelled to ask someone why was there no James Baldwin available. Ironically, James Baldwin was available, but his work, along with other African American authors, was found in the much-condensed section earmarked specifically for black writers; a menagerie ranging from literary fiction on one end to anthropological research on the other. The collection was bound only by the authors' hue.
Such distinctions caused me to ponder: is it not time that society release the shackles that bind incredible works of art to their communities of origin? The impact of such practices, which is not limited to the mega bookstore, is a systematic ghettoizing of wonderful works of literature.
Isolating James Baldwin and other black writers in the African American section works to severely limit the scope of exposure. Such practices run the risk of sending a subliminal "Hands Off" to those who are not members of a particular culture.
Because so much book purchasing is done via browsing, under our racial straightjackets one must be predisposed to African American writers in order to have the wherewithal to purchase their works. If one browses no further than the standard literary section they run the risk of not only being deprived of Baldwin, but they will have no access to Maya Angelou, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, or countless other African American writers who give to the world a distinctive voice based on their unique American experience.
This unfortunately is the result when our collective obsession with race leaves us locked in the purgatory of arrested development. I am not simply advocating that bookstores rid themselves of specific sections (i.e. African American, Latino, Gay/Lesbian, etc.) To do so, I suspect, would cause protest and accusations of insensitivity by the impacted communities.
I recognize there remains a need to have sections that focus on the works of specific groups, especially during the months when the legacies of such groups are highlighted, like Black History month. Moreover, there will always be a need for specialty bookstores, whose particular market emphasizes specific groups.
But to understand and appreciate the mosaic of the American Experiment demands some risk taking on all parts. Each of us stands on our own unique street corner with a varying perspective that gives rise to our individual voice. Racial discomfort is fueled through our willingness to remain on our individual corners maintaining our perceived monopoly of "the" truth.
Literature is a pathway that can move us to the other side of the street, allowing us to experience different viewpoints while simultaneously informing our own. Yet, such action requires risk: the risk to experience the unfamiliar.
Little wonder why America on the whole is as divided as the literary sections in most bookstores: the majority of men support one political party, women the other; whites predominately make up the Republican Party, while people of color make up the Democrats. It has become easier to hide behind our preconceived notions because risk-taking has become passé. But failure to take these chances will keep America divided down the fault line of race, clinging to a perceived need to parse out the African American adventure from that of the dominant culture -- as though the former is an accidental sub set of the latter.
Under this rubric, James Baldwin is not classified as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, but as one of the 20th century's greatest African American, gay writers. He is reserved for a special section -- separate, and unequal.
Byron Williams writes a weekly political/social commentary at Byronspeaks.com. Byron serves as pastor of the Resurrection Community Church.
© 2003 Working Assets