SEPARATE BUT UNEQUAL....DIVERSITY IN THE WRITING WORLD
America has a long and complicated racial history. In 1896 in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation,( also known as separation) was equal. Things only finally changed in 1954 in the case of Brown v. Board of Education when, the Supreme Court ruled separate but equal is inherently unequal. We like to think that since those dark days in American history, things have changed for the better and in some way they have. But in others, they remain the same. Things are the same in the publishing world, at least that is what I've been seeing in my many years as a reader and now in my short time as a published author.
Today I went to the two bookstores in my city, Books-A-Million and Barnes and Noble. When I walked into BAM, I saw that in the front of the store the new arrivals in fiction were displayed. Right next to those books was the African American category. Now I cannot fault BAM for where they decided to place these books. They were up front in the store for everyone to see. But as I stood and watched people come in and out of the store, the African American section was ignored completely. People went over to the new arrivals, skipped over the AA section and then moved to the fiction section right next to it. My heart sank.
I found myself angry. As I looked at the books on the shelf in the African American section I thought about how so many of these books would fit in other categories and gain so much more exposure instead of being put adrift in a category, readers walk right past. Simmering with aggravation, I continued my browsing around the store. I came to the romance section and was shocked. I saw a brown face on the cover of a romance book. I picked it up to investigate further. It was a Beverly Jenkins book. In the entire romance section, she was the only African American author that had not had her books put in the African American category. I had no idea what to think. I was happy to see heroes and heroines that looked like me, but it shouldn't be up to just one author to carry that weight. I made my purchases and left, but something nagged at me so I went across town to Barnes and Noble.
At Barnes and Noble, there was no separation of books by race. As I browsed the shelves, I noticed books by African American authors on the same shelves, in the same section as everyone else's. I was happy. Quite pleased. It seemed B&N had the right idea. Separate is not equal. But at the same time, I noticed there were less books overall at B&N than BAM, limiting your selection.
So now that I'm home thinking about things I have a lot of questions. Who decides where a book is shelved? Is it the publisher? Is it the bookstore chain? Or is it up to the discretion of each book store?
Whoever came up with the idea for an African American section may have thought they were doing a good thing. Maybe their intention was to encourage more people of color to read by showing them books with people who looked like them on the cover. And while a few more people of color may be reading more, authors of color are losing out. With the diversity of books in the African American section that could easily fit in other categories such as romance, chic lit, women's fiction, suspense, ect., these authors are missing out on those markets because readers seeking these types of books will never see their books because they are placed in the African American section. It's sad, but true.
A separate category is not an equal category. In my opinion, I think the African American section needs to be done away with. Period. If you want to have an urban section to put novels written about the ghetto and crime, fine. But the rest of the authors unfairly stuck in the African American category need to have their books placed on the shelves in the appropriate genre they belong to. African American is not a genre. It is a race based category and it needs to go away forever. All writers want to have the chance to have their books exposed to a wide audience and they deserve that chance. So when it comes to having an African American section in the bookstores, thanks but no thanks. The Supreme Court ruled separate is not equal and I wholeheartedly agree.