Monday, August 10, 2009

Should There Be A Separate African-American Fiction Section in Bookstores?

This morning around 6am I was shelving books at Borders in the Literature/Fiction section. At the end of this section is a section called African-American Fiction. Before working at Borders I never noticed that African-American literature was shelved apart from the rest of the literature section. It really bothers me and it seems like such an out-dated concept to separate African-American books.

Why do book stores do this? I could think of no good reason, so I did a little bit of online research and it seems that many people have asked this same question but have not gotten satisfying answers.

In one article, "Separate but Equal Shelf Space," it said bookstores aren’t prejudice – they’re just trying to make the shopping experience more convenient for its customers. The article quotes Kate Ellis, an English professor at Rutgers University, who says, "A separate section makes more likely that someone who did not know about a particular author or book, but was interested in African-American literature of various kinds, will find something of interest in a section so labeled."

Most other people interviewed for the article think that books written by African-Americans should be shelved just like any other book and not in a separate section, which is what I also believe.

Why segregate just the African-American fiction? Why not also have an Asian-American section? Or Israeli-American? I often look for books written by female authors, so why isn’t there a section by female authors and one for male authors? Or maybe there should be a section for books written by people with brown eyes and one for blue-eyed authors.

Organizing books according to the author’s physical characteristics is a little silly. All books should be categorized and judged by the content within the book. Maybe book-by-book, while no one is looking, I will start combining the African-American fiction books with the main Literature/Fiction section.


Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

Hmmmm, I can see having a separte section for books on the topic of African American culture etc.

But to place them separately by author seems odd to me. But maybe in the end they'd all still end up separate.

Leah L. Logan said...

I was surprised to find your article about the separation of African American books on bookstore shelves. I applaud you for that fact that you noticed the separation of African American books in bookstores. That lets me know that the world is changing and that prejudice is being squashed by intelligent people like you.
However, as an African American, I find myself having a little ambivalence with this issue. Personally, I have walked through bookstores and noticed the African American section, and sparkled with pride, because of the fact that not too long ago many people have sweated, bleed and died, just so that we could have equality like being allowed to read and write and being in a bookstore in the first place. Talking with other African Americans, I can say that many of us feel a sense of finally being accepted when seeing our work proudly displayed in bookstores. I feel that because of the years of suppression, slavery and separate by equal garbage, displaying African American books on the shelves of major bookstore is a small, but just and sweet compensation.
Yet and still, I also find myself thinking like you. I ask myself, “When are we going to take the next step towards true cultural integration?” I realize the fact that we have a separation by race or color in bookstores, means that we still have a ways to go to truly accepting each other as humans. I strongly believe that issues of race and ethnic diversity all boils down to an individual level to make a global difference. I don’t think there is anything wrong with us being color aware. We should continue to appreciate each other.
In conclusion, if things had been different in this country - as far as our history is concerned - then I would think that having an African American section in a bookstore was silly and absurd. However, at this point in our time, I’d have to lean towards this being a positive thing.

Leah Logan, Certified Diversity Consultant and Founder and President of The Purple Heart Institute

Anne Greenawalt said...

Joyce and Leah, thank you both for your comments!

Joyce, I also agree that books separated by culture, including African American culture, should have a separate section. And at Borders, at least, I believe there is a section for African American history and culture.

Leah, thank you for adding a new perspective on this topic. It's definitely a tricky question, but I'm glad you see the African American fiction section as positive and empowering because I was having a difficult time finding the positive side.

It just still seems odd to me that African American authors have a separate fiction section, but authors of other American ethnicities, Asian American for example, are integrated when they have all suffered and fought for their rights in this country.

Thank you again! I appreciate your perspective.