Loving Audio Books But Not The Segregation of Books and Literature

© 2010 by Alice Walker

I woke this morning thinking of two recent audio books that I admire:  The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai andThe Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani.  I listened to both these books over the summer and they have haunted me ever since.  They are quite strong medicine and unquestionably powerful, if not for everyone.

The one set mostly in India tells more than I sometimes could absorb about the challenges of immigrating to this country from India, if you are poor; the other, set in ancient Iran, follows the life of a peasant village woman who develops into a designer and maker of fine carpets in a society that demands that, outside her house, she be completely subservient to men and also wear the chador.

It is a wonderful thing to be read to, and the narrators chosen for these novels, set in modern day India (and Manhattan) and 17th  century Persia (Iran) are superb.  It is easy enough to Google reviews, so I won’t attempt one here, and for all I know these books met with great notice and acclaim when they first appeared. I hope so.

I recently committed my own novel of twenty-eight years ago, The Color Purple, to audio: it is now available from Recorded Books.  The novel has had a long life as a book, then as a movie and then as a Broadway Musical (and still touring); the circle completes itself with the book read/told by me, as messenger from ancestors and kin I knew little of at the time of the story’s unfolding (before my birth), but loved nonetheless.

In my passion to locate more books by writers from other cultures I took a turn around the Kindle and Amazon sites, to discover something that seems truly amazing: books by black authors are segregated by race!  This would be hilarious if it were not so troubling.  If, after all of our struggle to integrate into this questionable system we may enter a bookstore and stand anywhere, but our books must reside in a corner, the world has not changed nearly as much as I, for one, assumed it had.

There are writers from Iran, Japan, Ireland, England, India, China, Israel, Korea, Tibet etc., all listed and shown to be writers of Literature.  But when looking for my own novel (which world wide has sold perhaps fifteen million copies) I found it tucked away with twelve or so books by other African Americans under African American Literature.  To make matters worse, no one had bothered to read the book to verify the narrative.  A synopsis has the main character raped by her father rather than by her stepfather (her father was lynched when she was an infant) a point that is crucial to comprehending the dynamics of the heroine’s rise from disaster.

I had noticed this segregation before, disturbingly in a Borders bookstore in Berkeley/Emeryville.  There books by African Americans, all twenty-five or so of them, were stuffed into a dingy circular kiosk that looked as if it had not been straightened out or freshened in months.

Recalling the child I was who was not allowed into the public library of Eatonton, Georgia, I think of children, especially, who will receive a subliminal message that somehow literature by African Americans isn’t really Literature.  That it is a separate and smaller, i.e. lesser, creation.

What could be the rationale for such segregation, today, 2010, when our president and first lady and their children are African American?  When Oprah Winfrey sells more books by writers of all colors than is even imaginable.  Maybe booksellers assume black people only read books by other black people and want to find them quickly without having to consider what other writing might be going on in the rest of the world. There is also the amusing notion, held by some, that when black writers write about Life it isn’t about Life but about being black.  That this is ridiculous can be determined by thinking – for a moment, no more – that when white writers write about Life they are simply writing about being white.  Imagine how bored Charles Dickens would have been.

It is too late for segregated thinking; it harms by blinding us to what is most useful for us to know: how to survive as feelingly human; how to thrive, worship and dance in this life. As selves unique.

The Color Purple, for instance, whose first words are “Dear God” is about God.  About the need to abandon a God who is incapable of hearing us, and to find a God in Nature who not only listens to us but unfailingly responds.

We are beyond a rigid category of color, sex, or spirituality if we are truly alive.  Not to be alert to the challenges and wonders confronting humans today is to miss what could be the last chance to understand and celebrate the wonderful multi-everything mystery that we are.

The responsibility for changing literary segregation rests with readers.  Would you drink from a segregated water source?  Eat in a segregated restaurant?  Buy a dress where I could not try one on? Buy a book where black writers are discriminated against?
Changing our society and the world is up to us, even in what might appear to be small choices. Any hope of our communal happiness depends on our private honoring, to the best of our knowledge, of the dignity of all, and of what is right.

I woke this morning thinking of two recent audio books that I admire:  The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai andThe Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani.  I listened to both these books over the summer and they have haunted me ever since.  They are quite strong medicine and unquestionably powerful, if not for everyone.

The one set mostly in India tells more than I sometimes could absorb about the challenges of immigrating to this country from India, if you are poor; the other, set in ancient Iran, follows the life of a peasant village woman who develops into a designer and maker of fine carpets in a society that demands that, outside her house, she be completely subservient to men and also wear the chador.

It is a wonderful thing to be read to, and the narrators chosen for these novels, set in modern day India (and Manhattan) and 17th  century Persia (Iran) are superb.  It is easy enough to Google reviews, so I won’t attempt one here, and for all I know these books met with great notice and acclaim when they first appeared. I hope so.

I recently committed my own novel of twenty-eight years ago, The Color Purple, to audio: it is now available from Recorded Books.  The novel has had a long life as a book, then as a movie and then as a Broadway Musical (and still touring); the circle completes itself with the book read/told by me, as messenger from ancestors and kin I knew little of at the time of the story’s unfolding (before my birth), but loved nonetheless.

In my passion to locate more books by writers from other cultures I took a turn around the Kindle and Amazon sites, to discover something that seems truly amazing: books by black authors are segregated by race!  This would be hilarious if it were not so troubling.  If, after all of our struggle to integrate into this questionable system we may enter a bookstore and stand anywhere, but our books must reside in a corner, the world has not changed nearly as much as I, for one, assumed it had.

There are writers from Iran, Japan, Ireland, England, India, China, Israel, Korea, Tibet etc., all listed and shown to be writers of Literature.  But when looking for my own novel (which world wide has sold perhaps fifteen million copies) I found it tucked away with twelve or so books by other African Americans under African American Literature.  To make matters worse, no one had bothered to read the book to verify the narrative.  A synopsis has the main character raped by her father rather than by her stepfather (her father was lynched when she was an infant) a point that is crucial to comprehending the dynamics of the heroine’s rise from disaster.

I had noticed this segregation before, disturbingly in a Borders bookstore in Berkeley/Emeryville.  There books by African Americans, all twenty-five or so of them, were stuffed into a dingy circular kiosk that looked as if it had not been straightened out or freshened in months.

Recalling the child I was who was not allowed into the public library of Eatonton, Georgia, I think of children, especially, who will receive a subliminal message that somehow literature by African Americans isn’t really Literature.  That it is a separate and smaller, i.e. lesser, creation.

What could be the rationale for such segregation, today, 2010, when our president and first lady and their children are African American?  When Oprah Winfrey sells more books by writers of all colors than is even imaginable.  Maybe booksellers assume black people only read books by other black people and want to find them quickly without having to consider what other writing might be going on in the rest of the world. There is also the amusing notion, held by some, that when black writers write about Life it isn’t about Life but about being black.  That this is ridiculous can be determined by thinking – for a moment, no more – that when white writers write about Life they are simply writing about being white.  Imagine how bored Charles Dickens would have been.

It is too late for segregated thinking; it harms by blinding us to what is most useful for us to know: how to survive as feelingly human; how to thrive, worship and dance in this life. As selves unique.
The Color Purple, for instance, whose first words are “Dear God” is about God.  About the need to abandon a God who is incapable of hearing us, and to find a God in Nature who not only listens to us but unfailingly responds.

We are beyond a rigid category of color, sex, or spirituality if we are truly alive.  Not to be alert to the challenges and wonders confronting humans today is to miss what could be the last chance to understand and celebrate the wonderful multi-everything mystery that we are.

The responsibility for changing literary segregation rests with readers.  Would you drink from a segregated water source?  Eat in a segregated restaurant?  Buy a dress where I could not try one on? Buy a book where black writers are discriminated against?

Changing our society and the world is up to us, even in what might appear to be small choices. Any hope of our communal happiness depends on our private honoring, to the best of our knowledge, of the dignity of all, and of what is right.

17 Comments

  • Eccentricity

    I’ve never listened to an audio book, so no I wasn’t aware of that at all. I think it would be wonderful to hear you read and besides its been years and years and years since I read The Color Purple–I do remember the part about it being Celie’s step-father who did the rape because as I recall she finds that out later on and gets a house. Forgive me please, if my memory is off.

    At our library I don’t know how the audio books are arranged but the print books are all together. There is an African American Studies section and Latino and Womens Studies, but that’s not where you’d find something like The Color Purple…perhaps Warrior Marks. The Color Purple would be in with general fiction.

    I finally got the book Brother, I’m Dying–thank you for suggesting it and I love when you write about what’s good to read.

    And no, I wouldn’t eat in a segregated restaurant or do anything else that was segregated.

  • kunzang

    Ah, Alice!

    You give us another instance of the fact that “racism” is the air we breathe, the water we as fish swim in.

    Nobody’s a “racist” any more, except a few of those guys in pillow-case hats. Our non-POC acquaintances are quick to say “I never think about race!” And yet, the facts are all around us: profiling, huge differentials in graduation rates, sentencing to incarceration — and segregation of books! !

    Guess we all gotta go to our local Borders and do a little more educating.

    ER

  • syam

    hi,
    I am a researcher from India , doing research on alice walker’s works.I am amazed to read when ms.walker wrote even today we live in a world maligned with segregation on the basis of race and colour!let’s hope and pray ;someday the color-race-creed differences will disappear and a world where people live harmoniously will come.

  • Anonymous

    I’ll try to keep this short. I wholeheartedly agree with all you’ve said here.

    When we lived in a multi-ethic neighborhood (Laurel Heights) in San Francisco, we had to specifically ask them to stock the “Black Barbie” and Steve her boyfriend. The store claimed the demographic for their product was Chinese girl children. I found this disconcerting since the Barbies they stocked were all blonde and blue-eyed. While Barbie with her unrealistic shape is not the best role model for anyone, if you’re going to have her available, it seemed odd that they were stocking only a certain type and they were assuming that people only want the equivalent of the “first world” Caucasian model. I am EurAsian, my husband is a combination of UK things, and we were offended. Our daughter and her best friends (one African American and one white) all thought “how weird” that we had to wait for Christie and Steve to be special ordered. What message does this send to preschoolers? Incidentally, I never wanted my child to have a Barbie. The Aunts gave us the blonde ones as gifts, and I promptly went out and bought Midge and Alan the brown-haired couple, and looked for Christie and Steve. While we’re talking about diversity, our daughter did little mini floor-shows of Alan, Ken, and Steve bouncing around to music in their wives’ clothing and Grandma found this suitably amusing :)

    Yes bookstores, please put the books where people can find them! And keep their displays as fresh as the others!

  • seasonedwemoon

    Good evening from Greensboro, North Carolina
    I have also experienced “segregated” books in the Borders in Brookfield, CT. African-American and “Alternative Lifestyle” books were placed together in the far back corner of the store on shelves that were obviously not tended well. I spoke with the store manager on duty regarding their placements and was just told that that is were they are placed. I further complained that being African-American does not mean being “Alternative”. And, if someone wanted to find a book that addressed an Alternative lifestyle they too would be lost in the store. I asked what did Borders desire to hide? I concluded to cancel my membership card and support local small booksellers and Barnes & Noble. Thankfully, in NC we have several small booksellers and fantastic libraries.

  • hotmommy

    I recently finished listening to The Color Purple. I really am unsure as to how to describe my feelings! I absolutely loved the story, the characters, the connections; I loved it all.

    Thank you, Ms. Walker, for reading this yourself and making it available to so many.

  • RapOets.com

    Unfortunately this literary segregation is something that does not go away with time, but with respected artists like you speaking out about it. The bright side is that these institutional problems provide space for individuals to create micro-solutions. Two come to mind:

    1. When Jessica Care Moore won the Apollo 5 times in a row (a first for poetry), she was told by major book distributors that books by “Black Female Authors” were not popular. She went on to found the very successful Moore Black Press (which I assisted in managing during college), releasing books by herself, Saul Williams, and others, and of course getting a major distribution dea.

    2. When I first started the RapOetry workshop to teach positive self expression through Hip-Hop many people thought it was a joke to put positivity and Hip-Hop in the same sentence (due to their own prejudice). Since then, I’ve been sponsored and received critical acclaim by public libraries, city parks, colleges, arts organizations, and of course even brought a group of my students to perform for you at the Veterans of Mississippi Civil Rights Movement conference! It is, as you suggested, a bit too troubling to let out a fully wholesome belly trembling laugh over, but otherwise quite hilarious!

  • RapOets.com

    2. When I first started the RapOetry workshop to teach positive self expression through Hip-Hop many people thought it was a joke to put positivity and Hip-Hop in the same sentence (due to their own prejudice). Since then, I’ve been sponsored and received critical acclaim by public libraries, city parks, colleges, arts organizations, and of course even brought a group of my students to perform for you at the Veterans of Mississippi Civil Rights Movement conference! It is, as you suggested, a bit too troubling to let out a fully wholesome belly trembling laugh over, but otherwise quite hilarious!

  • Rain Pebble

    I’m still waiting for the world to change in letting children know that there are all kinds of families…Families are not all”mom/dad” and the kids…how about a single parent “barbie”(doll) or two mommies/or two daddies” barbie” or islamic barbie…and so on…I keep my mind and heart open and keep waiting for the world to change…It takes all of us to make this world…A world without “hate”.

  • Kristy

    Hello Ms. Walker,
    I felt I must reply to your blog about certain book stores practically “hiding” the Black literature. How crass of them….they will NOT get my business. I grew up as a poor white child and experienced many hardships and personal pain..the worst coming from my own family. One thing I did not experience were bad racial feelings. Being from a northern state, I was not prepared for what I found when I was moved to rural NC 40 years ago. I was shocked, horrified, dismayed and extremely uncomfortable around the racist white people that expected/demanded me to feel the same way!
    When I could not join in their sorriness, I was excluded from their friendships and called “that damned yankee.” No matter. At least I could take comfort in the fact that I was right and they were wrong. Fast forward to my own daughters’ grief when she was shunned for interracial dating. I cried with her. Today, she is married to a decent and fine black man and I have two of the most beautiful grandchildren anyone could ever ask for. To say that I am proud of them would be an understatement. I worry about them being treated unfairly as the grow up in this imperfect world, but I know where I will be when it happens…..standing right beside them. My dream is that one day, none of this will ever be an issue again. Hate corrupts and poisons. Love heals and creates joy.
    Thank you.

  • foxy

    Alice.

    I have been thinking about you. It seems that in my inner landscape you have become a teaching elder. I wish we had more access to, acceptance of and respect for wise women in mainstream American culture.

    I appreciate the path you now walk, the words you craft, the dreams you dare to birth. In ways that are not immediately clear to me, you have often been a guide, even when I don’t follow what you are up to. I love how this magic happens, whether I believe it or not.

    The other night I went to bed, and asked my soul to provide me with tools, clues for protection while I slept. I tossed and turned all night, traveling across places and times. I could not hold onto anything, visions, plots, people. Just before I awoke a voice said to me, “Your grace will be your protection.” Yep.

    And you can eloquently, publicly share a similar message. Thank you for opening and sharing.

  • paul

    Just now reading “Now is the Time to Open Your Heart” which inspires peace & healing … In it the author mentions “The Way of the Shaman” — if this is Michael Harner’s book — what an odd coincidence that this is the only book on Shamanic culture I’ve ever read … It was recommended to me by a former lover …

  • brendalottakamaggiebrendan

    I’m so glad I read your interview in Writer’s Digest today! I’m surprised by the fact that books by African Americans are separately shelved at Borders. I’ve done booksignings there but haven’t noticed that. Now I will check that out and ask. In some ways, it’s like Christian fiction, which is what I write, (historical romance). Unfortunately, we have only a small area in the back of all bookstores like they want to hide us. However, Christian fiction is rising in sales and is competitive in the industry. I was a July CBA bestseller, but it’s hard to find my novels at most bookstores, regretfully. I don’t understand if you write fiction Christian or not, why all fiction is not sharing the same shelf with ABA. Guess we still have a long way to go. Enjoy your blog. Blessings.

  • Nina Grayson

    I already had an old comfortably worn copy of The Color Purple when I went in search of several other books by Diaspora authors for two courses I’m taking: Black Women Writers and The African Diaspora. I chose to buy my books on Amazon.com because they have such great prices compared to college and large retail bookstores. I had the same experience: the African American Literature is segregated. Now, I contend that this could be for the purpose of giving Diaspora authors their own unique place among all other literature. However, when I look at the NY Times Bestsellers list or even Amazno.com’s, or B&N’s, or Borders – I find that I have to dig to find new and exciting literature by a Diaspora author; there are not many, if any, in the top ten of these lists. That leads me to recognize; maybe because there is this assumption that black writers only write about being black and the black experience (which it isn’t, because the black experience is also the American and the World experience) the big sellers don’t see those books as moneymakers. Maybe, the big sellers sell to the mainstream, and I think the mainstream holds the same assumption. Bebe Moore Campbell and Terri McMillan hit mainstream, but so have many other writers. Regardless, when I walk into Tattered Cover, my favorite bookstore here in Denver, or if I go home to Berkley and head down to 4th Street for some good food and reading, I expect to see on display a mixture of featured authors that are of the human race, including Diaspora authors.

    I guess we’re still evolving…and just ain’t there yet.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Ms. Walker,

    I just read your new “Writer’s Digest” interview. Which is how I found out about your site/blog. Good for you for using every medium you can to get your very helpful ideas out.

    Regarding your comments on being true to your own voice, I look at it this way. If the corporate MSM wants to push segregation and other things, the best way to get their attention? Cut into their profit margin.

    You don’t have to march in the streets. You don’t have to put up with being on cable news “interviews”. If I see the need, I just go elsewhere. If no one wants to listen to my views, I start my own network to be heard.

    As for others not doing the right thing, that’s their decision. Which means they then live with the consequences. For me, I feel good that I have my niche and do what I can. Because if I didn’t, I couldn’t live wth myself.

  • Anonymous

    Just out of curiosity, I went to one of my local Border’s. I checked out the sections and found the exact same thing. One row over was the “American Politics” section. Which was about 90% right wing content.

    I talked to someone in the store, and basically got corporate responses. But here’s another reason to not go there. If you believe in intl. law, then war criminals like Bush and Blair pushing their books there makes me say go elsewhere.

    Hope you can talk about that in a future post.