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Black Voices in Prose: Take a Deep Breath, Exhale

Black voices in prose: Take a deep breath, exhale

Sherri Winston by Sherri Winston, August 8, 2001, Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.

Stories about blackness, once upon a time, left me feeling adrift.

School librarians, eager to feed my young appetite, filled my hands with books. Roll of Thunder. Hear My Cry. Sounder. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Poignant books that told lyrical, heartfelt, immediate, resonating, fascinating, invigorating tales of blackness.

But the connection evaded me. In the '70s and '80s, African-American readers, young and old, consumed tales of slavery's abominations, tales of early American racism, tales of bitter poverty and alienation. Important stories.

Yet I read them and wondered when someone was going to write a story about me. My caramel-coated complexion, my blue-collar neighborhood that didn't have mansions but wasn't the projects, either.

Who was going to tell the story of a young girl craving college, anticipating dating and curious about the world, tell it to the rhythm of neighborhood double-dutch, acknowledging my Parliament Funkadelic music, my Michael Jackson poster, my preference for boys with short afros and sneakers?

The question followed me from high school, followed me from Michigan pastures to Virginia coastlines to Florida tropics. All the while, momentum was building. More and more stories were seeping through the pores of American publishing. The monolithic African-American experience crumbled as skillful storytellers chiseled their individual tales.

At first, a trickle. Then the trickle grew wider and bolder until the early '90s when Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale made a splash. Literary critics may argue the cultural significance of McMillan's often frothy, sometimes gritty and always candid contemporary tales, but no one can question the impact. Since Exhale's '92 debut, major publishing houses that historically turned their backs on African-American writers began to promote a range of black voices.

While mainstream book marketers struggle to keep sales up, the market is thriving for books about black romance, black professionals, black men and women and children whose lives look more like mine.

Benilde Little, Dawn Turner Trice, Chassie West are a few of my recent favorites in black contemporary fiction.

Akbar James Watson, owner of Pyramid Books in Boynton Beach, says that as a bookseller he must work hard to keep up with the growth. "My main customer is African-American women. I think the market is catching on that these women like stories about characters like them," Watson says.

So true. Gone are the days when the only blacks to which readers were exposed were from the South or from plantations or from parts of the world most of us have never seen. Watson appears in the latest issue of Essence as the magazine's black bookseller of the month. He says his average repeat shoppers are "well-read. They read the Grishams, the well-known authors, all that."

On my shelf next to Toni Morrison's Paradise, which I've flagged to re-read, are Midwives and I Know This Much Is True, both Oprah books, both by white authors.

Major publishers are creating separate imprints for black authors whom they will market specifically for black readers. Doubleday is launching Harlem Moon.

At Pyramid, Watson takes me along wall after wall of his well-stocked store, showing me books that started out with independent publishers. Kimberla Lawson Roby's Casting the First Stone is enjoying a healthy afterlife with Dafina, a division of Kensington Books. "She started out selling this book out of her trunk," Watson says of Roby's book. "Now her second book, It's a Thin Line, is one of the hottest sellers."

I love all kinds of stories, but I'm especially grateful for the current trend that allows a multitude of voices, voices that speak to me.

Sherri Winston's column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays in Lifestyle. She can be reached at 954-356-4108 or

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Click here for more about Sherri Winston.

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