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Charles D. Ellison Headshot

Define "Urban Lit" ...

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Rage against the Mullah machine fumes in Iran, economy is wrecked, and health care reform is a rubbery roast of ripped tire on the road to political hell. Recent conversations, instead, managed to touch on the meaning of "urban literature."

As critics, observers and fans of Black literature lament the spread of "street lit" and "ghetto," "urban" creeps in as sophisticated semantic savior. Neo-soulish, post-modern buppie Blackness getting old: "urban." It's riddled with lack of perspective, peppered with cultural in-fighting and old fashioned racism.

Definition is crucial as recession hits shelves hard. Black and indy owned stores shut down, and dreamy brothers and sisters inspired by greatness to put pen to paper find sprawling strip mall chain retailers either unwilling or undone. Recent surveys suggest Black readers - skilled in the critical thought bigoted notions refuse to acknowledge - want variety, hence rumbles of an upheaval. Perturbed Black buyers rail on everything from absent creativity to the corruption of young Black minds. Same battle over "rap," the hollowness of "urban" tracks incorrectly designated as "hip hop" while the lyrical, analytic beauty of asphalt stanza is crushed by White teen fantasy shareholding 80 percent.
It swirls in an ugly soup of moral relativism and pop-cultural melee.

Turning the internalized racial component on its foul, flaky head, White authors write pretty gritty, true-to-life stuff, too. Chuck Palaihnuk, Stephen King and others venture down that path of poor-White-trashiness that's just as ghetto as - quoting this author's work - "... [the] distinct, funky sameness ... like that Logan corner with the 24-hour laundromat." So: what's the deal?

"Urban fiction," one could argue, is what it says - the "urban" experience ... which doesn't necessarily mean "Black." It's simply the expression of city existence, the DNA of that which is Gotham. And why Sex in the City or Friends isn't urban while The Wire is confounds the lettered soul. There's a quickness with which we commit cultural disembowelment when scoffing at the scent of anything "urban" if it produces Black experience, but something cool about it when gentrifying Caucasian yuppies can celebrate reverse suburban. Time to scrape the stench of classism and elitist self-hate off your shoes, folks. Plus, it's not like "ghetto" is our term, anyway. Black folks didn't coin it - and, there are just as many ghettos in Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia as there are in Philly, New York, Chicago, LA and Oakland. But, ultimately, this is all state of mind, fam. "Free your mind," utters Morpheus, the legendary anti-mainstreamer "Matrix" trilogy antagonist. There's much truth in that statement.

Point is, we've been through this: Zora Neale Hurston got clowned and verbally lashed by the Harlem Renaissance crowd for using "dialect" - now, she's posthumously endowed as literary icon with movie deals. Yet, Mark Twain's poor White boy tales passed the ivory tower bar, while Charles Dickens can describe English steel ghettos in "Hard Times." But, Sha can't do it in "Harder?" Shannon Holmes can't paint it in "B'More Careful?" Urban fiction isn't some '90s concocted or half-conjectured figment of Black streetness - Chester Himes, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Donald Goines all spit novel commentary on the urban experience in ways the mainstream rejected back then. Sure, we have an obligation to eliminate the stereotype (even though some who get snotty at Sista Souljah's "Coldest Winter Ever" find the racism in "True Blood's" Black male emasculation somewhat fun), but we also have an obligation to encourage creative expression. We have an obligation to share the American experience in its totality. I might not agree with all I'm seeing on the shelves, but is it my place to deprive the other's literary passion, especially if I didn't bother to read it?

As one fellow Black knight of the written word complained, it's not so much the spread of "street lit" - it's the way some convey it, authors more interested in "the most salacious book, the book that's more hood." Screwing literary immersion, some compete based on projected sales and street cred. And, true that cats need to get a bit more creative with the porn-teasing covers - anybody can get a digital and snap a curvy sister in Victoria's Secret. Still: folks are reading and writing. Isn't that enough in this dimension of lost conversational art? Alas, perhaps we're just cranky Generation X'ers married with kids and misty over 20th century relic. Literature, like everything else, evolves.