Thursday, April 28, 2011






You see them laid out neatly on tables at the Harlem Book Fair and similar annual events in all major cities, or lying casually on coffee tables in East Point, Atlanta, Emmerson Village, Baltimore, and Gun Hill Road in the Bronx, right next to the pack of Newports or the ash tray full of blunt clips. Much like the birth of Hip Hop in the early Eigthties, once voiceless people are being given a voice, previously untold stories are being heard, and heretofore untapped markets of new readers created by an ever increasing pool of talented and not-so-talented new writers.

The provocative glossy covers attract the vision from the neat stacks of the sidewalk vendors lining 125th Street, in the hands of young women on the subway engrossed in the tales of grime and grit, and on the shelves of your neighborhood Borders, Barnes and Noble, even the public libraries. The titles are provocative and just as eye-catching as the covers. "Purple Panties." "Thong on Fire." And it's not just young women reading them either. Teri Woods and Deja King are just as popular in the penal institutions filled with African-American and Latino males as they are with young females. More men reportedly read Urban Fiction than any other genre.

Also known as Street Literature, Urban Fiction emerged much for the same reasons "gangsta rap" did. Stories needed to be told. Any writer can attest to the overwhelming need for an outlet to the stories filling the head, screaming to get out onto paper and into the hands of people with an equally overwhelming need to read them. The daily, often life-and-death drama of the streets can induce as much need for therapeutics as the post-traumatic stress of young people returning from combat in Afghanistan. And as Terri Macmillian once said, writing is a whole lot cheaper than pyschotherapy.

Street life stories can often be stranger than fiction, sometimes just too crazy to be true. And they're the same whether in Southeast Atlanta or Chicago's South Side, Flatbush, Brooklyn or Magnolia Projects in New Orleans. Young girl comes home from school and finds her older drug dealing brothers running a train on one of their bourgeois customers who later turns out to be an assistant DA, and video taping it. Young man opens a bedroom window for air, the one year-old girl his mother is babysitting falls out of the window, six stories to her death. Vindictive baby mamas turn in their fugitive boyfriends for a share of the bounty on their heads, fifteen year-old girl inherits her brothers' crack empire after they get sent up north. From the HBO series The wire to the ubiquituous Law and Order TV episodes, street stories are being told mostly for entertainment and a vicarious ghetto experience, but Street Lit lends an added sense of urgency, like gangsta rap's gritty stories warned of the Crown Heights and Los Angeles riots.

Just as major record companies were uninterested and dismissive of the early purveyors of "gangsta rap," established publishing houses had little or no interest in stories from the streets. In the tradition of NWA selling their independently produced rap tapes out of the trunks of their cars, the hustla-authors took their product directly to the streets, like clerical worker Teri Woods reacting to endless rejection letters by self-publishing her Urban Fiction classic "True To The Game." The success of such daring independent ventures inevitably caught the attention of the very same publishing houses that had initially snubbed people like Woods, again much as the major record companies scrambled to capitalize on the do-it-yourself success of groups like NWA.

But Urban Fiction is not really new. On the website, a writer named "Daniel" chronicles a history going back to 1722, (Moll Flanders, "Social Reflections of A Prostitute) through the 1800s, (Stagalee Ballads, "Original Gangsta Badass Hustler) to the prolific, popular Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim of the 1960s and 70s. The recent explosion in the market can be attributed to myriad reasons, among which are the 1990s Crack epidemic which swept up untold numbers of young urban people, both as purveyors and victims, the endless and ever expanding "war on drugs" with its own list of casualties, not to mention the current recession, which undoubtedly leads more people to try their hand at writing and selling their stories in lieu of non-existent employment opportunities.

Many of the authors and independent publishers are former players in the lucrative drug game, have relatives or friends in the game, or some other connection to street hustles. In other words the stories are real, which lends irony to the genre's title, as well as a raw power that compensates for the often poorly written and badly edited content. Poorly written and edited might be an understatement in fact. Some of the writing is simply horrible, and what "editing" there is, often downright atrocious. But page after page of pure drama keeps the reader engaged.

Readers accustomed to more professional presentations could be said to make a trade-off, settling for real life grime as opposed to the more polished fantasy of mainstream novelists. Street fiction authors write down the stories told to them by their friends and associates, or in many cases were active participants themselves, which lends an aura of authenticity far less true of more mainstream purveyors of fiction. With the recent entry into the genre of more established publishing houses, the quality of writing and editing promises to be affected in the positive, as G-Unit, Urban Books and Simon & Schuster step the game up.

Like the harder edges of Hip Hop, Urban Fiction draws its share of critics. The genre's raw street language, graphic sex and undiluted violence are controversial in some African-American literary circles and encounters mixed reception among librarians. According to Anne Barnard in the New York Times Oct 22, 2008, critics argue that Street Fiction perpetuates stereotypes, another argument we've heard before in connection with that other popular crossover from the urban subculture, Hip Hop. Long established authors like Toni Morrison and Terri Macmillian don't appreciate the fact that "B More Careful" or "Girlz In Da Hood" are shelved next to their more respectable work. Omar Tyree, himself an early beneficiary of the Street Fiction market explosion, has reportedly decided to withdraw his talents from the genre. Barnard cites Drexel University Assistant Professor Vanessa Morris (Library Sciences) who reveals that some Black librarians loath the genre as a "cultural embarassment."

All of which figures into the larger cultural war between the African-American middle and upper class on one hand and the urban subculture which in recent years has become the nation's popular culture. This cultural battle is exemplified by the uproar over use of the N word, the percieved glorification of the criminal lifestyle and the dysfunctional family, lack of respect for education, and crass materialism. The Black upper classes however, may share some of the blame for this socio-cultural disconnect, as author and social critic Michael Eric Dyson and others have pointed out. The following quote, culled from a article on Jamaican dancehall culture, could easily apply to the Street Literature debate, when the genre is seen in the larger context of Hip Hop culture increasingly becoming international youth popular culture:
"It just will not do to embrace 'low life' Jamaican (African- proletarian) culture without sanitizing it and divesting it of its 'unsavory' qualities by scholarly reinterpretation. Weed smoking and misogyny aside, the Jamaican elite has to embrace the Dancehall or find itself left out of the loop of euro-hipness. And, that is the rationale for this reassessment of the gender politics of Dancehall. Co-optation is the name of the game."

An Urban Fiction writer colleague of mine breaks it down this way: "The Black middle class wants nothing to do with the ghetto. They spend their entire lives trying to distance themselves, to prove that they're not like 'those people.' So what do they care what we do, how we express ourselves culturally or what words we use as terms of endearment among ourselves? We're grown folks, they need to stop trying to tell us what to do."

While these socio-cultural issues will perhaps forever be debated by social scientists, the Urban Fiction market continues to grow, partly for the simple reason that people see themselves in those stories, or can identify in some way. Says Shonda Miller, an unofficial Urban Fiction field scout for the Queens Public Library, "I read what I can relate to. They're writing about what I've eperienced. It's easier than reading about Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive."

Public libraries across the country see Urban Fiction as a way to stimulate more interest in reading, spread literacy and more fully engage the public they serve. Lora-Lynn Rice, Collections Director at the Martin Library in York County, Pennsylvania commented in Barnard's article,
"We’ve got people who are reading for the first time. We’ve got people coming into our building who have never come here before. Why would we not embrace this?"
Why not, indeed? In an increasingly cross-cultural world, the more stories that can be told, the better humanity is served in terms of understanding, tolerance and perhaps even the possibility of change. Street Lit stories cover the gamut of urban pathologies and sociocultural issues, from absentee fatherhood and baby mama drama to the growing numbers of young women sexually into each other, from the criminalization of young black and latino men, widespread corruption in the criminal justice system, how law enforcement and the very lucrative prison industry contribute to the continuing mayhem in the ghetto, to the possible implications of the globalization of ghetto criminal subculture.

From strippers, video booty shakers and their effect on young womanhood to "ride or die chicks" doing fifteen year bids for their dope dealing boyfriends, the narratives are all from the perspective not of sociologists but the young people involved themselves. What makes a young woman agree to transport narcotic substances concealed on her person or "hold" a stash of deadly handguns for her boyfriend?
Where else could one gain better insight into the mental process of a teenage girl caught between love for her hustler boyfriend and an attraction to her girlfriend, as in this passage from "Panty Posse."

When she was fourteen, Crystal began to notice some strange feelings she had for other girls, especially Tasha Riley who had just transferred to her school. She told her mother about her confused feelings, being in love with Ricky and secretly attracted to her best friend at the same time. Karen sat her down for a heart-to-heart. That’s when Crystal discovered that both her older sisters, Toni and Michelle, at Spellman College, were gay.
"Don’t be afraid of what’s inside you," Karen advised. "Embrace it. Make it a strength rather than a weakness. Eff what the world thinks or says about it."
Crystal giggled at her mom’s surprising use of profanity. "Ma, you said a bad word."
Karen Freeman smiled. "That’s right, I said it. Eff em!"
They both chuckled, and then mother and daughter hugged, cried and laughed together, all at the same time.

Or into the minds of young men spending their most productive years in the custody of the US Bureau of Prisons? Here's an ecerpt from "When I Hear Drums: Autobiographical Essays."

A UNICORP job is the most coveted among inmates in the prison system. Inmates assemble aircraft parts, military gear and the office furniture used throughout the system and outside of it. It pays two dollars an hour, as compared to the twenty-five cent rate other inmates earn...Without justifying what I did or downplaying my own role in ending up at Danbury, could it be that the billions racked up by UNICORP from cheap inmate labor is the real reason for the "War on Drugs?"

The more people know about corruption in the criminal justice system, the more willing those with the power to make adjustments might be to bring more equity and balance to the system. From correction officers working for the drug kingpins and ganglords they are supposed to be guarding, widespread sex between female guards, staffers and inmates, to COs smuggling in weapons, drugs and cell phones and complicit in inmate beatings and murder, the more these stories are told, the greater the likelihood that perhaps our very concept of justice can be changed.

The more they know about what's really going on in the streets and how lives are impacted by government policies like the war on drugs and crime, the more willing those in power might be to effect change.
And if that still doesn't happen, at least they won't be able to say they didn't know. They'll know because the writers of Street Lit told them so, just like NWA's anti-police rants on wax warned of police corruption and brutality, and foretold the Los Angeles riots. Since President Obama never ever mentions a need for reform of the criminal justice system or repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws, we may assume he is not aware of the dark side of our system of justice. Perhaps the President could use a subscription to DON/DIVA or FEDS magazine, or better yet, a copy of "When I Hear Drums?"

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