Thursday, May 6, 2010

Apartheid at the Library

During my last library visit, it was unseasonably warm. Hardly anyone was there, and I was really able to take my time, to poke around, and to do it with no distractions. I'd noticed the "African-American Fiction" section before, but never really investigated it. For some reason, that day, I decided to. I pulled books by unfamiliar authors off the shelves and looked at them. I'd assumed, for some reason, that what was over there was primarily chick lit with black women, and there was a fair amount of that, but plenty of other, more intriguing fare mixed in.

It got me wondering, what is "African-American Fiction" anyway? How do they decide what gets shelved there, and what gets shelved in the general fiction section? Is it the race of the author? The race of the subjects? The fact that race is treated at all? How come Zadie Smith and Zora Neale Hurston aren't over there, then? My best friend from college is black, and I am white. If she wrote a novel about our friendship, where would they put it? Where would they put it if I wrote it?

Come to think of it, why is there an "African-American Fiction" section, anyway? Isn't it a pretty racist assumption that white people wouldn't want to read about black people, and that black people won't read anything unless it's about them? I think to some extent, a lot of people like to read about themselves. I know I do. I enjoyed books about college students when I was in college, books about people making their way in the world as a recent grad, and now that I'm over 30, I like to read about people making the transition to being 'real adults,' though I'm still not into Babylit yet. But I can appreciate and take an interest in the experiences of others. Why would the necessarily be all that different?

Sure, there are cultural differences between blacks and whites. Sadly, there are still many differences in status and socioeconomic class, too, too many differences. That doesn't mean that we still can't get something out of each other's experiences, though. Look how much fantasy and sci-fi novels often give their readers. I wrote, a while back, about how I found the explanation of death contained in the His Dark Materials trilogy to be enormously comforting, based in the only after-death experience we have hard evidence for. You never know what you might learn from, be enriched by, or take comfort in. That's why I feel it's wrong to take a group of books and put up a big "KEEP OUT" sign on them.

I'm interested, though -- does anyone have a different perspective? Do you feel that the classification of fiction into racial or ethnic groups is OK? I'd very much like to hear it, if so. Also, if anyone has theories as to why they started doing this in the first place, I'm interested.


chris said...

I think you raise some very interesting questions that I have never considered before. Just to add though - does your library have a Queer Literature section? If not, why? What makes an African-American Fiction section okay but not a Queer Fiction section?

Sorry - no answers, just questions. :)


Library Diva said...

Good point, Kiki! They don't have a queer fiction section as far as I can tell. Just the African-American fiction section, then everything else together unless it's a sci-fi/fantasy or mystery. I wonder if this is coming one day, and how they'll make those decisions as well.

kittens not kids said...

well, you know how I feel about the Children's/Teen sections. I mean, the librarians in the Teen room always look at me a little askance when I wander in there (you'd think they'd recognize me by now). but i never see other adults browsing the shelves in Teen or Children's.

I think it's a question of audience, of making books with a particularly strong appeal/interest to a certain audience (a real and/or imagined community of readers, ie African-Americans, Latinos, LGBTQ, etc) readily accessible and findable. MY library does have a Queer section, and it includes nonfiction and fiction; it's between African-American interest and non-english-language books.

As for why Toni Morrison shows up in Fiction and not African-American fiction, I'd imagine it has something to do with the canon. It's pretty easy to identify canonical works and/or canonical writers; everyone who has heard of her knows Morrison writes about African-Americans and specifically black experiences. But not everyone knows that - oh,say, Jacqueline Woodson - writes about them, too. And since there is a substantial subset of the population who want books about African-Americans and African-American experiences, highlighting them makes sense.

I don't think that anyone should read those designations as off-limits or as a kind of library ghetto. I know people DO, but I wish they didn't. Maybe think of it as a kind of permanent exhibit, the way Irish books get highlighted at St Patrick's Day.