Last week I had some time and stopped by one of my favorite places, McKay’s. It’s really a treat when I have time during the week to go peruse the seemingly endless shelves of books. The store is quieter than it is on the weekend and it’s much easier to browse without having to squeeze by people. During the week, looking through the many books becomes a zen-like experience and this day was no different.
Since I had time this particular day, I went down almost every aisle. I looked through the biographies, true crime, mystery, etc. As I was browsing, I turned onto an aisle that I’ve perused before. This aisle usually has nonfiction “cultural studies” titles categorized by cultural group. For example, there’s an African American Studies section and a Native American Studies section. This time, it was LGBT Studies that caught my eye. Right next to the bays of nonfiction titles about the LGBT experience are two bays of LGBT+ fiction. I immediately took a picture because I was shocked. This is still a thing?
Not too long ago, it was common to see African American Fiction sections in most bookstores. It was always a weird little space. The section was predominantly “urban” fiction. It was the place to find books by Zane, Sister Souljah, Omar Tyree and basically anything deemed unworthy of “literary fiction” or “general fiction” placement. Some stores would place the section near African American Studies, just like McKays placed LGBT+ fiction with LGBT Studies. As a reader, my thoughts about these categories were always complex. On one hand, if I was shopping for a novel written by an African American author, I was likely to find it in African American Fiction. On the other hand, it was hard to avoid the feeling that I was being shuffled off to a section of the store that only “certain people” would be interested in. Apparently, I wasn’t alone.
Curious about what others thought of the days past when African American Fiction sections were the norm, I started digging. Science fiction author N.K. Jemisin tackled this issue head on in a blog post in 2010. Let’s just say she didn’t keep her feelings to herself:
I hate the “African American Fiction” section. HATE. IT. I hate that it exists. I hate that it was ever deemed necessary. I hate why it was deemed necessary, and I don’t agree that it is. I hated it as a reader, long before I ever got published. And now that I’m a writer, I don’t ever want to see my books there — unless a venue has multiple copies and they’re also in the Fantasy or General Fiction section.
She did more than just express her disdain for the section. She addressed the widely held belief that black people don’t read or buy books and just how untrue that is. Jemisin also explained that these categories aren’t inconsequential to African American authors’ careers. In fact, they can limit an author’s success. A few years earlier, the Wall Street Journal made the same claim:
As a practical matter, segregating books by race and culture makes it less likely that black writers will hit the national best-seller lists — whites make up a majority of book buyers — limiting their chances of earning bigger paychecks.
Now, I’ve been talking about this idea of categorizing fiction based on culture or identity as if it is a thing of the past. The truth—I thought it was. Imagine my surprise when I strolled into one of my new favorite bookstores, Novel, and found that they too have what they call an “urban fiction” section:
I don’t typically look for this section, so I was shocked to happen upon it just a few days after visiting McKay’s. It’s populated mostly by what people call “urban” titles—Sister Souljah, Zane, Ashley & JaQuavis, Eric Jerome Dickey, etc. There were others, however, that I haven’t heard referred to as “urban,” like Kiese Laymon, Trisha Thomas and others. The section seems to function the same way others did a few years back; it houses the books by African American authors who have yet to garner a mainstream audience. Toni Morrison and Walter Mosley weren’t present . Octavia Butler was sitting comfortably in science fiction. While I didn’t search science fiction for N.K. Jemisin, I didn’t see her books in this section.
There are reasons to have titles categorized this way. I worked in a bookstore briefly. I worked in a bookstore where, for a while, I was the only black hire. I worked in a bookstore whose customers were mostly white. It was common for African American customers to approach me asking for the “African American Fiction” section. There’s a convenience factor that is certainly lost for some customers who do, in fact, only want to buy books by African American authors and aren’t interested in browsing the entire fiction section to find them. I want this convenience for African American readers. I do.
At the same time, I want white people to happen upon a Kiese Laymon or a Zane. I want them to pick it up, read the synopsis, flip through the pages. I don’t want the “urban fiction” or “African American Fiction” sections to allow white customers to avoid these stories. This is the reason I stopped when I noticed the LGBT+ fiction section in McKay’s. As a heterosexual woman, I should encounter these LGBT+ stories as I browse the literary or general fiction sections, as I have in other bookstores that don’t categorize their fiction this way.
While some would argue that we should all be searching all parts of a bookstore, actively seeking out diverse stories, we all know the truth. It’s not likely to happen. Even the best of us have reading habits. We are drawn to stories we are familiar with. That could change, but it’s possible it won’t. There are already so few stories by and about minority groups, why not encourage all of your customers to read them instead of the few you think are interested?