It Might Not Be “The Color Purple,” But There’s Nothing Wrong With Black Street Lit

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I would accompany Veronica on her very first book signing. We sped the one hour or so drive down I-95 to the outskirts of Baltimore, watching out for the vulture-like Maryland sheriffs, who comb the highways looking for people to pull over. I had no idea where exactly we were going, other than the directions she gave me. So when we pulled into a flea market, I was a little taken back. “So, it’s in here?” I asked, scratching my temple.  Veronica shrugged, “Yeah, I guess.” We unloaded the single box of books she had brought and headed inside. There, we met Tra Verdejo, street lit author and proprietor of Street Scripture Publishing, whose bookstore of the same name was just a two-table stall housed across from a costume earring stand and someone with fake pocketbooks.

The flea market was like a poor man’s mega mall; mostly black and brown folks – with some splattering of white people – migrating from low-income communities across the state to haggle with vendors for bargains on sneakers, jeans, off-brand electronics, cell phone chargers, bulk 100 percent Yaki hair, mixtapes and the latest in-bootleg DVDs.  Oh, and books too: one for $10; two for $15; and three for $25.

I’ve been witness to book signings before; most result in the author sitting for hours waiting for someone, anyone to buy their book. However, 15 minutes after setting up shop, Veronica, who had been yelling down the crowded aisle, “Don’t cheat yourself, treat yourself”- a selling mantra she’d made up somewhere between the parking lot and snack bar – had her first customer.  She was a young brown skinned woman, maybe in her early twenties, shopping with her boyfriend. Both had been regular readers of street scriptures and had stopped by to re-up on the latest in urban lit titles, including Lyric. She read the back of book, turned to my sister-in-law, who waited anxiously, and said, “You the awltha?” Veronica nervously nodded in confirmation. The girl squealed, “Ooo, I neva met an awltha before. Oh babes, take a picture.” The boyfriend pulls out a cell phone and dutifully began his impromptu photo shoot.  By 1:30 p.m., which was two hours after our nervous arrival, Veronica had signed and sold half of the stock she brought down from Philly. An hour and a half later, she sold out. She had also taken about a half dozen pictures with self-described new fans.

In between the selling, I got to witness one of the most impressive things to happen around the genre: readers having conversations around the stories. We met one reader, who says that she reads about 10 of these books a month and actually prefers them to television. I listened as two men, both janitors by trade, debated the authenticity of supposed Baltimore colloquiums used by characters in one book. I listened as Veronica, who too is a regular reader of the genre, discuss with another fan key plot points, symbolism and morals from books like Knee Deep and Dopefiend. The conversations around these books mirrored in some respects, the same intellectualizing and dissection that I have had with girlfriends in our college dorm over the a Toni Morrison novel. What these conversations suggested for me was that for many of the readers, these characters were complex and the stories had some value – at least in their lives.

Storytelling is as old as writing itself. As such, there is no one “right” way to do it and no one person, or group, who can represent it. For years, we have read stories from more affluent (both financially and education-wise) contemporary black authors, who have written exclusively about the exploits of the affluent black middle class.  While these stories are often better-versed, if we are truly honest, many of the themes, including sex, violence and drugs, we found in contemporary stories and are no different than what you are likely to find in many street lit novels.  Moreover, for a very long time in black literature, the stories of the less affluent have been dominated by whose only connection to those people they wrote about was what they read in a newspaper or a sociology book in college.  It was important for these writers to take control over their own stories. It’s one thing to read Push (aka “Precious”) from a social worker, looking from the outside and possibly from bias lenses, but it’s another to read a story written in the proper syntax, including poor grammar and spelling, from the sources themselves.

After her book signing, Veronica took some of her profits and splurged on some crab cakes for us at a nice restaurant.  As I listened to her immediate plans for the future, including making movies and publishing other authors, I began to think about my own struggles as a writer. Our stories are nowhere alike, not in real life and not on paper. Mainly those nights where I sit staring at a computer screen, agonizing over every single line, thinking about the time my college professor told me my plot lacked substance and second-guessing myself, wondering if I would I would ever be in the class of say a Walker or a Butler. Those kinds of doubts are why I have fallen short in my own goal to complete my novel.  But I was inspired by my sister in law, who had faced an insurmountable amount of adversity in life and had no worries about what the critics would say, but rather, if the story she wanted to tell was the one being told.

Contemporary black lit is not dead. It’s just not limited to just one viewpoint as it had been in the past. This evolution has meant that readers, who might not have had a choice in the type of stories they wanted to see (particularly those from speakers that looked like them), now have stories they can relate to. However, that doesn’t mean that lovers of the old school black authors should fret: Those authors aren’t going anywhere. They win awards, they are the ones people prefer to highlight in most mainstream black magazines and they will be continue to be touted by every respectable Negro with dreadlocks and a college degree. Just saying…

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