In recent months I have been listening to librarians (via conferences, book club meetings, conversations) from various areas of the country report about how when library patrons come into the library looking for Street Lit that they invariably ask for the genre with the question, "Where you got dem black books?" Librarians from the south, midwest, and northeast regions have all intimated this exact same expression, which I find to be an amazingly fascinating synchronicity at work here.
So this has me thinking about what does it mean to be "dem black books"? This goes back to my earlier blog post when I stated in a P.S. that I would be blogging about why I no longer believe that current day Street Lit is solely a sub-genre of the genre of African American Literature. Couple this earlier position with "dem black blooks," along with the recent Washington Post article by African American author Bernice McFadden where she throws Street Lit under the bus to explain her frustration at her view of the current publication trends of the U.S. publishing industry, along with the recent blog post by Belleisa that furthers explores the topic of "Who's Allowed to Tell The Tale?" .... and well, my mind is swirling with all kinds of "what's goin' on" memes. And for me, when I am asking "what's goin' on" in the realm of literature and cultural representation, my concern automatically pings at who I am - a black librarian - thus I begin thinking and wondering about what things mean in the context of black librarians servicing library users.
I think about what library users expect of librarians when they walk into a library to find texts in various formats. So when a patron asks "Where you got dem black books" I'm wondering what does the black librarian think "dem black books" mean? What does a librarian think this query means for a patron of color? for white patrons for that matter? Are librarians automatically shuffling patrons to the street lit/urban fiction books because it is explicit that that is what the patron is asking for (i.e. because they're black), or are they automatically shuffling patrons to street lit because that is all that the librarian knows him/herself about 'dem black books'?
What if a white patron asked, "Where you got dem black books"? (Whites read Street Lit too, by the way). Where would we go in the library collection to satisfy their query? What would that readers advisory interaction look like, sound like?
Is it all right or enough for the librarian to go, "Yeah, they over here..." or can the librarian go, "What do you mean by 'dem black books'" (irregardless of patron cultural identity) and spiral the interaction from there? Is the patron expecting this from the librarian? Do library users expect librarians to know more about a genre, about books, and to share that knowledge with them?
For me this brings up ideas about how we black librarians in particularly, assess and define our own cultural literary spectrum, and based on our assessments and definitions, how we consequently act as conduits for patrons accessing our cultural literary spectrum. What I mean is - if the black librarian defines 'dem black books' as just Street Lit too - don't that mean we in trouble as a literary folk? Ain't librarians supposed to know more, define wider, and be savvy at offering up inclusive ideas about what it means to read, what it means to read literature, and what it means to read 'dem black books'?
As an advocate of Street Literature, I am not an advocate of street lit at the expense of any other literary genre, especially African American Literature. I am an advocate of Street Lit as a genre that has the right to exist and thrive just like any other literary genre. Having said that, I also define street lit from a geographic/socio-economic-specific stance, and not solely from a cultural or ethnic stance. And this is why I no longer believe that Street Lit is solely a sub-genre of African American Literature. There are Street Literature novels, memoirs, and biographies that contribute to the genre of African American Literature, yes indeed .... and this is where for me, exists a literary 'fork in the road', if you will, where I contend that Street Lit is more than 'dem black books' and 'dem black books' are more than just Street Lit. I posit that librarians must understand this reciprocity concerning all genres and should be about promoting the entirety of the library based on the notion of open, fluidic access to the library as a holistic representation of each patron. If you think about it, all genres are hybrid genres that ebb and flow into one another: For example, Twilight by Stephanie Meyers is not just a 'vampire book' - it's romance, fantasy, and a bit of horror, all rolled into one tome. The same is true for any book, I believe, including Street Lit books.
I do understand and have experience with how in librarian practice, literary literacy begins with how the patron sees and views a book. It is about how patrons define what they are interested to read. But the librarian, as an acolyte of literary tradition, has to also be a critical thinker as the in-house 'expert' of the collection and ask - "What do you mean by 'dem black books'?" - even if they are asking themselves this question as a point of practitioner inquiry - for the librarian to ask him/herself what they mean by 'dem black books'...
I believe that it is a part of a librarian's educative mission and stance to stimulate patrons intellectually and thereby help educate patrons on what is meant by 'dem' and 'black' and 'books'. Why? Because libraries are more than bookstores. Libraries are not just 'give them what they want' spaces - libraries are also traditional spaces for learning more about what you want. Libraries are spaces for intellectual ah-ha moments. These moments often come from interacting with librarians who are lifelong learners themselves.
Readers advisory practice, where we have these kinds of conversations with patrons, creates a deep, rich, social interaction where the patron teaches the librarian and the librarian teaches the patron. The patron comes with what they know and are expert, and the librarian comes with what they know and are expert. Patrons go, "I read this or I wanna read that." The librarian goes, "Cool, and I read this and I know about that - what do you think about that?" Within this kind of social-professional interaction, it is embedded that the patron expects and needs the librarian to know a little more about 'dem', about 'black', and definitely to know more about 'books.'
Thus it is the librarian's job to at least have an understanding of where street lit sits within the historical continuum of not just Black literary tradition, but American literary tradition as a whole, since street lit stories come from all kinds of cultural locations. In this vein, the whole library becomes 'dem black books' (reflecting who the patron is, or identifies with, not what the genre is purported to be) and thus, a broader literary view becomes discourse for the patron to consider and browse. If the patron says, "No thanks, just take me to where the Triple Crown books are," by all means, take them where they want to go and on the way, let them know what else lives alongside K'wan and Vickie Stringer, on the shelves. Patrons deserve that, and K'wan and Vickie Stringer deserve that too. It's what we do.
**This blog post is dedicated to Patrice Berry. Thank you hun.**