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.