There is a valid need to spotlight non-white authors to the larger white reading audience for a number of reasons.
Here's one of them: I went to Kim Reid's book signing for her terrific memoir, No Place Safe sometime last year. It was held in a chain bookstore and until that day, I didn't realize that most chain stores shelve books by all African American authors in a separate African American section. Typically, independent book stores shelve books of each genre together and I do most of my brick and mortar book shopping in independents, so I had no idea.
This segregation of sorts is a dual edged sword. Many black authors like being placed in this section because the African American book buying demographic likes the idea of being able to find black authors all in one place. If chain stores do it, you have to know that the market research has borne out the business case.
On the other hand, book buyers like me tend to browse the front tables and the fiction section. It never occurred to me to look anywhere else. To be honest, when I first visited the African American section, I felt a little weird. It felt sort of like a section labeled "African American" meant the books were for that reading audience -- which in retrospect, doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but it turns out I'm not the only one who feels that way. Consequently, I've missed out on a lot of good books.
One down side to having books by black authors segregated in this way (in my opinion) is that books by black authors are as diverse as books by anyone else. Volumes of poetry and serious works of literary fiction may reside alongside urban fiction, which I have not read, but I believe to be a genre of pulp fiction that I'd never read.
Another impediment to expanding the readership of black authors is that many non-black authors have preconceived notions about what books written by black authors are going to be like. Of course there are books that reflect the history of slavery and the struggle for civil rights, and these are stories that need to be shared. But there are many more books that tell contemporary stories that simply share the human experience. There are mysteries, thrillers, romances, sci-fi stories, historical fiction and every other genre that is found throughout the rest of the book store.
If you know what you're looking for and you know the author is black, you'll probably have no problem making a beeline to the African American section and finding it. But if you're just looking for a good read and you're browsing the general fiction section, you're missing out on some good books.
In March, Barack Obama made a historic speech about race in America and the fascinating thing about it to me was that as a person who has lived a life as a part of black America and white America, Obama has witnessed and been part of the conversations about race that most of us never get to see or hear. He talks about the things that are said at the kitchen table that we don't say in front of each other. If you have never seen this speech, I strongly urge you to take the 37 minutes to watch it. It is amazing.
One of the best things about reading books by black, Asian or middle-eastern authors is that we get to sit at that kitchen table and hear what the characters say about race (or anything) that we might never hear or have the opportunity to understand first hand.
So this month, buy a book by a non-white author and give it a try. You'll be supporting your fellow authors and you might just come away with some new insights.
Please check out Carleen's new site, White Readers Meet Black Authors and you'll find some great recommendations. If you've got recommendations, leave a comment. If you haven't read it yet, I'd recommend you pick up a copy of Orange Mint and Honey -- pick up two or three and give them as gifts! Scott read it (one of the small number of my recommendations that he has read and liked) and he loved it and so did I.
As for the Eudaemonia diversity in reading poll, how often do you read books by non-white authors? Were you aware that books by black authors are shelved in a separate section in the chain stores? Have you ever gone to the African American section of the bookstore to browse? If you've read books by non-white authors, what are your recommendations?