Window into Black World

One of the students in my morning class, upon hearing that I am a writer, reeled off a list of titles and wondered if I’d read any of them.  There wasn’t one I had heard of, and we were both surprised.  “Stacie,” she said, her voice rising with her incredulity, “everyone is reading these books.  Where you been?”  I wondered the same thing.  I asked her to write down a few of the titles for me so I could check them out.  She did and also promised to bring in a few that I could borrow.

The next day, true to her word, Dani brought me a couple of books … and I thought I understood what was going on.  Were all the books she had mentioned similar to the ones she’d brought in, I asked.  Yes.  Right.  It all became clear to me.  The books she had named all fit into the genre I like to call Black World books.

These are books that have become extremely popular since genre king, E. Lynn Harris published his first book in the mid 90s.  Black World books are the book version of the commercials for Pepsi and MacDonald’s that air during black sitcoms.  This is the category that has spawned the sub-category of sometimes raunchy black erotic fiction that has made Zane a star.  In fact, one of the books Dani brought in for me is a collection of short stories by Zane.

I read Pearl Cleage’s What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day a couple of years ago (late to the table, I admit), and I’d read Terri MacMillan’s Waiting to Exhale several years before that.  I liked them well enough, but … Well, they weren’t really my thing.  The stories didn’t show a version of life that I could get lost in or relate to.  There were things I liked about both books, but neither moved me enough to make me want to read any of the authors’ other books. 

Black World fascinates me, though, because I have been so completely removed from it my entire life.  Growing up surrounded by white people meant that I grew up without the reference points shared by the characters in these books.  And my innate snobbery has meant that I’ve turned my nose up at the often less-than-stellar writing and even less-plausible story lines.  I’ve watched people on nearly every train and bus I ride reading one of these books and clearly loving every minute.  So I decided to read Dani’s books and see what all the noise was about, see if there was a difference between Black World fifteen years ago and today.

And I’d say the main difference — at least with the books Dani loaned me — is sex: the who, how, how much and why of it.  I only gave the second book a brief glance (and I’ll leave it unnamed here because I should know it better before bad-mouthing it to you), but even in that brief bit, there was a level of raunchiness that turned me off.

Zane surprsied me — I was able to read a handful of the stories and not feel the need to shower.  Good deal, but still not really my deal.  I love that these books are so popular, that people are reading them and sharing them around and getting other people to read.  No, they aren’t ‘high art’ … but neither is Twilight, neither is Chances.  Not art but fun and entertaining, which is what they’re meant to be, and I have to admit that I like reading a story in which the sassy black woman isn’t just the best friend who goes home alone at the end.  I love that a growing number of black writers are making names for themselves and building market share and all that, selling enough to live off their writing.

I’m pretty sure I’ll never read all the titles Dani listed for me, but every once in a while I might have to dig out my copy of What Looks Like Crazy and remind myself what fun it can be to hang out in Black World.

(Yeah, ok, I actually envy the Black World writers that ‘live off their writing’ bit.  I’d have moved to Jamaica already if I could do what they’re doing.)


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