On my way home from a meeting last Thursday night, I passed a Borders bookstore. My meeting had been rather productive and I felt like celebrating. I’m a self-confessed and unrepentant book addict. I buy books when I’m depressed. When I’m happy. When I’m bored. When I want to celebrate. Or, just because I can. I don’t really need a reason to buy books. When I spotted the bookstore, I became focused in the way of the obsessive-compulsive. All of a sudden, there were two books I just had to have at that very moment and I set out on a mission to find them. Once inside, I searched all the displays. The buy one, get one free display. The new fiction display. The Borders bestsellers display. The New York Times Best Sellers Display. The Borders Staff Picks display. I still couldn’t find my books. So, I did the next logical thing: I went to the literature section. There were still no signs of my books. The books I wanted were written by African-American authors. Just to make sure I wasn’t going crazy and that I still remembered the alphabet, I looked for books by James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. No sign of the greats. A bookstore without books by Toni Morrison or James Baldwin would be willfully engaging in false advertising. I couldn’t imagine a big chain like Borders risking its reputation in that way. So, I knew there had to be an African-American literature section somewhere on its two floors. I looked all over the first floor to no avail. I then looked at the directory, which did not even mention African-American literature. But, I still held out hope and went to the second floor.
Once upstairs, I still couldn’t find the African-American literature section. Now was the time for drastic measures: actually asking someone for help. I spotted two female sales associates who were venting about some slacking co-worker.
“Do you have an African-American literature section,” I asked the younger one with the Bluetooth in her ear and ring in her nose.
“Downstairs behind the literature section,” she answered quickly before resuming her gossip fest.
Damn. Why do we have to be behind the literature section? How come we’re always behind something or in the back of the bus? I thought. I rode the escalator back to the first floor and glanced at the directory again to see if I had missed the African-American literature section the first time. Nope. My eyesight hadn’t fooled me. So, I searched row by row for this African-American literature section whose existence I was beginning to doubt.
Aha! I had finally found it! Two rows and a side shelf made up the African-American literature section. I finally found the two books I had had been searching for by Daniel Black and Bertice Berry. Now that my first mission was complete, I could focus on the next task at hand: finding out why there was even an African-American literature section. Members of one of the online communities I frequent have been discussing the ways in which African-American sections in bookstores contribute to or impede diversity. A poster challenged each of us to actually visit bookstores and ask why there are separate sections for African-American literature.
I went back upstairs to ask the woman who had directed me to the section in the first place, but retreated when she gave me that “Don’t you see I’m in the middle of a bitching session and am trying to put these books away before we close in 30 minutes” look. So, I went downstairs and looked around. The only sales associate in sight was a thirty-something year old black male helping a young black woman with an English accent.
“I’m looking for books written by black women, about women or men, that make you think” she said to him.
Yea, that narrows it down, I thought. Since I’m a book lover and nosy, I had to add my two cents. I noticed that her arms were weighed down with books written by Eric Jerome Dickey and Zane.
“You want books that make you think,” I asked, wondering what epiphanies one could have from reading books like Naughty or Nice, The Other Woman, and Gettin’ Buck Wild: Sex Chronicles II.
“Yea,” she answered. OK, this might be a long night, I figured. I shouted out book titles as the sales associate ran back and forth pulling books off the shelves.
“In London, the Black literature section only takes up two rows,” she said. She was visiting New York and intended to take back as many books as would fit in her suitcase. “The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah. Have you ever read that?” I asked her.
“Yes, I loved it,” she said.
“Oh, you have to read some Toni Morrison,” I told her.
“Is that Mary B. Morrison’s brother?” she asked. Ok, we have a lot of work to do with sista gurl.
“No, they’re not related,” the sales associate said.
“Toni Morrison is a woman,” I added.
“Start with this,” the sales associate said as he handed her Beloved by Toni Morrison.
By this time, it had become clear that he was only interested in giving her as many books as possible to fatten his pockets and get her out of his hair. He obviously had not given any thought to the types of books he was recommending. This woman thought Toni Morrison was a man and that books by Eric Jerome Dickey made people think. I was skeptical about whether she was even ready for Toni. But, to pick one of Toni’s most confusing, difficult, and symbolism-ridden books might have made this poor soul slit her wrists.
“Don’t you think that’s a lil’ too heavy?” I asked the associate. “Maybe she should start with The Bluest Eye.” Then again, maybe that might be too much. He picked out The Bluest Eye and handed it to Ms. Tourist.
After the young woman had gathered as many books as she could carry, she sat on a footstool and sifted through her finds. The sales associate darted off to the customer service counter, free at last. Not so quick buddy.
“Hey, I have a question for ya.” I said to him.
“OK. I hope I have an answer for you,” he replied.
“My friends and I were having a conversation about why some bookstores have a separate section for African-American literature, as opposed to just including African-American literature in the literature section.”
Although a white male sales associate stood beside him at the counter, he conveniently ignored our conversation. The look on the white associate’s face reminded me of Mike Myers when rapper Kanye West stood next to him during a televised Hurricane Katrina fundraiser concert and said “Bush doesn’t care about Black people.” The black associate twisted his face, frowned, took a step back and stretched his arms forward as if about to launch into an hour-long conversation about his promiscuous sexual history.
He then laughed and said, “Ya know, other customers have asked me this same question. I’ve had this exact same conversation before in this store.”
“Really?” I asked like a clueless damsel in distress.
“Yea. Do you want my opinion or the real reason?”
“Gimme both” I answered.
“Well, it really comes down to money. It’s not about race or anything like that. Black literature has really blown up in the past ten years. Ten years ago, all you had was Toni Morrison or Terry McMillan. Publishers didn’t wanna take a chance on us. Now, you’ve got Zane and all these other Black authors. So, it just makes sense to put them all together so that people can find them and bookstores can make more money off of the flourishing Black literature industry. Having a separate section really helps out the lesser-known authors, whose books would probably get lost in the crowd if they were in the literature section. What’s better? Not getting read at all, or being in the African-American literature section?”
“Ok, so is that the real reason or your opinion?”
“Oh, that’s the real reason.”
“Well, now I wanna hear your opinion. Why do you think black authors are in a separate section?”
He then bent over and whispered to me as if we were two slaves conspiring to overthrow the massa.
“If ya ask me, we ought to be glad we have our own section.”
Ok, he was afraid of the massa and other Blacks folks hearing him.
“Today, we have more authors getting published and getting exposure, and readers have more to choose from. You know how much it took for us to get to this point? Ten years ago, publishers weren’t taking a chance on us unless we were Toni Morrison or Terry McMillan. Now we wanna go back to being in the general literature section. Nahhh, I don’t think so.”
Well, I got my answers. I got my books. I was done for the night.
“Thanks so much for answering my questions. Those were pretty interesting answers I never thought about.”
“You’re welcome,” he said as he reached out his hand to shake mine. “What’s your name?”
I told him my name and asked him for his.
“Jeremy. I’m the assistant manager here.”
Well, just groovy. I got my answers straight from the horse’s mouth!
I found the cashier and purchased They Tell Me of a Home and Redemption Song. I left the store with the feeling of relief and satisfaction a drug addict – or a book addict in my case – feels after a hit. I had to go all the way around the mulberry bush and back down to the African-American literature section, where I finally found a home and redemption.