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Reading Across the Racial Divide

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I read a post on author Tayari Jones' blog earlier this month that hasn't left my mind. She asks why books by black writers aren't considered universal, starting her post with these words:

"In the last few years, black writers have been speaking out about double standards in the world of publishing. Among these are Martha Southgate's NYT essay, "Writers Like Me" and more recently, Bernice's MacFadden's "Black Writers in A Ghetto of the Publishing Industry's Making". In these articles, both writers (who also are novelists) put into a public conversation the issues that black writers have been complaining about for years -- like why is it that stories about black folks that are written by white folks get so much traction. (The Help, The Secret Lives of Bees, Little Bee, etc.) How come books about us by us are not thought to be "universal"? Why are black faces on the cover of a book thought to be so alienating? At this point in the gripe session, I break out my favorite oh-no-he-didn't moment -- when someone asked me what percentage of my work is "black" and what percentage is "human."

It's not only a great post, it's an important question for all readers and writers. For readers: you/we are missing a vast store of great books by staying within one's cultural boundaries. We're missing great reads and, as important, we're missing that most important (to me) method available to understand each other. How better to understand other's experiences, than to immerse in their lives through novels and memoirs? Whether or not one has issues with The Help in it's portrayal of black servants in the South, it is beyond argument that one will be immersed in a more honest, experiential read with Anne Moody than with Kathryn Stockett.

Not that I think we should be reading across racial and cultural lines to do good, reading for the common good or as an act of charity. But Jones' point in her post is important: in regards to the need for black writers to be considered American authors as well as black American authors, "It is going to be up to readers."

I am not going to belabor her points -- she makes them far better than I could. I will say that I am grateful that I found her through Twitter (another point for Twitter!) And I am grateful that it led me to read one of her books, because now I can look forward to reading all her work.

My main question is this: I gobble novels. I read a certain sub-genre (the troubled family in a troubled culture) like crazy. Jones' novel Leaving Atlanta is a perfect gem of the genre. I also read reviews, magazines, papers -- you name it -- like crazy. (My home would be a candidate for Hoarders, if I weren't also addicted to recycling and clear surfaces.)

So why didn't I know about Jones before Twitter? Why is Kim McLarin, a great writer, not a household name? Why are there so few readings by black authors in my home town of Boston -- a city rife with author visits?

Yes, it's up to us as readers to discover the gems we've been ignoring, such as Leaving Atlanta. Based on the true story of the Atlanta child murders from 1979-80, the three narrators in this book will break your heart. Jones' writes in the transparent manner I love --calling no attention to itself, while wrapping words seamlessly around the story with clarity, precision and beauty. Describing a scene of traumatized children, she writes "All of the kids wore weird expressions, like their eyes had been reversed and they were all staring inside their own heads."

When we can read page-turning work, learn about history, and drink in great writing, that seems like a good deal to me -- especially if we can pull away from ghettoizing writers at the same time.