Street Lit Debate: Does Urban Fiction Undermine the Black Canon?

July 26, 2011  |  

“Representing the race” remains a prickly issue in black literature

By Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond

In the 40-plus years since Robert “Iceberg Slim” Beck released Pimp, the audience for so-called “street literature” has remained faithful to the genre, making bestsellers of Beck’s contemporaries and successors like Donald Goines, Omar Tyree, Teri Woods, and more recently Sister Souljah. But in 2008, after penning 16 novels, Tyree dramatically retired from the genre via a blog post.

“I’m done with writing all urban fiction,” he wrote, lamenting what he said was the “[urban audience’s] love for grit, crime, sex, broken hearts, drama, and other bullshit.” Calling his own work “urban classics,” Tyree juxtaposed street lit against what he termed “responsible lit.”

This debate rages on in the field of black publishing today. Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and James Baldwin represent the African-American literary canon with their musings on race, feminism, and sexuality, while so-called “Street Lit” continues to occupy a controversial, but commercially successful spot in the hearts of African-Americans. Though most of us fall somewhere in the middle in reading preferences, the anxiety commonly felt about this contrast is not so much about the poles themselves, but distress over being defined solely by “low culture.” Centuries of being stereotyped will do that to a people.

Leading authors in this field see this struggle between telling gritty tales and promoting laudable writing as more complicated than judging street lit as all bad — or good.

Torrey Maldonado, author of Secret Saturdays does not appreciate the distinction of this label at all. “I’ve heard people call [the genre] ‘street lit’ and it kind of discredits the type of literature that it is,” he told The Atlanta Post. Maldonado, whose book is set in Brooklyn’s Red Hook Housing Projects, adds: “Although Secret Saturdays is set in an urban environment, it deals with universal themes… You can’t say because a black boy is on the cover of the book, that this book is only for black people.”

But that’s exactly what many people assume, says author David L who does not publish under his full name because he wants to keep his identity as an author separate from his role as head of the company Total Package Publications. “That’s one of the reasons I don’t even put my picture on the back of my book,” L explains. “I want to be known for the type of fiction I write, not because I’m an African-American author who wrote about a specific subject matter.”

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