South side of Borders

One of my favorite jokes of all time goes like this. 

What do they call a black man with a PhD?  Nigger.

That’s the first thing that came to mind yesterday when I popped into my neighborhood Borders Books to do some writing and pick up a copy of the new Percival Everett novel. Yes, I shop at Borders. No, I don’t feel particularly good about contributing to the further big boxification of America. I’d much rather go to Skylight Books once a week and spend some time with Lucy, but Borders is two blocks from my house and Skylight isn’t. So, it’s either contribute to the already sphincter clinching traffic that lurches across LA’s surface streets during the day, or make a 2 minute walk.

I’ve been on a strictly non-fiction kick for well over a year and I’m looking forward to breaking the string. And why not do that with a multiple award-winning writer with 15 novels under his belt, a distinguished professorship in the English department at USC, and the distinction of writing one of my all time favorite novels, Erasure?  Without thinking, I navigated my way to the Literature section and began scanning the Es.  When I got to the Fs without seeing his name, I realized my mistake. Percival Everett just happens to be Black. As a result, his newest book sits on the shelf as such:


I have mixed feelings about this. I’ll go on record right now as saying that I’m a big fan of 69 and *69. Both are incredibly simple, yet criminally under appreciated. Also, although I’m a happily married man, I understand that perhaps further study of and dialogue in the art and application of booty calling is still necessary. In a fit of uncharacteristic optimism I even held out hope that this was someone’s satirical take on the entire genre of ghetto fiction. Maybe naming a book Booty Call *69 was the same kind of hyper-absurd lampooning of the culture that we saw used to such devastating effect in movies like Fear of a Black Hat and CB4? No.

“Taking urban erotica to dizzying heights and culminating in an earth-shattering climax, Erick S Gray spins a sexually charged, coming of age tale. The drama in Booty Call *69 revolves around a promiscuous young woman, Shana, who is so seductive she easily captures any man she glances at. After breaking up with the equally self-indulgent boy-toy, Jakim….”

You get the idea. It’s cheesy, genre fiction for Black people. Which, in and of itself, I don’t have that much of a problem with. White people read that stuff too, right?

The difference is that Philip Roth doesn’t have to share the same shelf. Those in the literary realm who actually sit down at the keyboard with the intention of writing the great American novel are held to a higher standard and held in higher regard. As such, their works are shelved separately. As long as they’re white. Then it’s off to that out of the way corner right next to the Gay & Lesbian section. One is treated seriously, and the other isn’t.

What’s that you say? It’s done that way because both books deal with African-American themes? Yes, imaginary white person voice in my head, some of Percival Everett’s work does deal with specifically African-American themes. Also, many of them don’t. Further, who in their right mind thinks that these two writers share an audience? All value judgments aside, the person who reads one is not going to read the other regardless of what color their skin is. In the way of further explanation, here’s part of the Publisher’s Weekly review Everett’s novel, Glyph.

“…off-kilter academic spoof about an infant with an IQ of 475. Grandiosely reminiscing, at age four, on the tumultuous first few years of his life, Everett’s hero, Ralph, recounts his manipulation and eventual imprisonment at the hands of a group of nefarious, constantly squabbling adults. "My father was a poststructuralist pretender and my mother hated his guts," declares Ralph, who at roughly 10 months confounds his parents by composing hyper-sophisticated poems about the human anatomy.”

Putting someone who writes this kind of fiction next to someone who writes urban erotica is like having Lil’ Wayne open for Wynton Marsalis just because they’re both black.  By placing his work in the African-American fiction section what Border’s is essentially doing is ensuring that someone who is browsing the shelves looking for a meaty new novel is not going to stumble upon The Water Cure.

How can white American make up for this affront? Go out and buy a book written by a Black author. Yes, buy one just because it was written by a Black person. If you’re going to support racial profiling of authors, why not support affirmative action for them too?

3 Responses to “South side of Borders”

  1. 1 Tony Nov 14th, 2007 at 10:34 pm

    Right on, man. Its no different in public libraries, either. Hell, there are still several books with that big ass, pseudo-african kinte cloth design AFRICAN AMERICAN AUTHOR sticker on the front and sides. Why is Kinte Cloth the go to design for things labeled African American Is it wrong to suddenly hate kinte cloth, because I think I do. Shits messed up.

    Just for kicks, I dare you pick one of those novels up. Why are people portrayed in these genre books always extensions of the “big willie” music video stereotype. Why?

    Rant over.

  2. 2 Nigger Lesbian Mar 27th, 2008 at 1:07 pm

    Interesting post. My name in the post seems appropriate since i am a black woman with a whole bunch of letters after my name

    It is so amusing that there are still people in the US who still think in colour and have a them and us mentality

    I object to the classifdication of some books as African american literature because black people, like white people write about a whole variety of things.

    You should try and look in the ‘nigger’ section, you’ll be amazed at the great content you find there

  3. 3 Assucrask Aug 3rd, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    I agreed with you

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