Hood Books & High Culture

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05/22/2006

Bedford Ave. & Fulton St., Brooklyn, NY, 11216

Neighborhood: Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn

What if books are the new crack? In the 80’s, Bed-Stuy had crack. Now, we’ve got literature.

The New York Times publishes plenty of articles on the fluctuations in Bed-Stuy’s crime rate, and on the neighborhood’s gentrification, but they are not reporting on this: literature. Perhaps it’s not fit to print.

I make my modest, recent-college-grad home in good old Do or Die. On the weekends, I like to take long walks and explore the area. On any given Saturday, I walk down Fulton Street, and on any given corner (maybe at Nostrand, or Brooklyn, or Franklin) there is a street vendor table, and that vendor is selling books with titles like “Candy Licker,” “Ghetto Girls,” “Homo Thug.”

On weekdays, I take the train into Midtown Manhattan for my recent-college-grad office job. On the subway, I am surrounded by teenagers and young adults from my neighborhood reading books with titles like “Keisha,” “Dollar Outta Fifteen Cent,” “Life’s a Bitch”–Hood Books.

What if we were to judge them by their covers? At best, they look like still shots from a slick hip hop video; at worst, they look like still shots from a low-budget hip hop video. There may or may not be a glass or bottle of alcohol, a sexy and scantily clad woman, a pimped-out car, a pile of crisp green cash. Critics could say the same thing about Hood Books that they do about hip hop videos: that they present a dangerous caricature of Black American culture; that they demean women; that they promote materialism–in short, that they are what is wrong with the youth of America.

I am a Black American youth, and I have always called myself a ghetto girl. I was born and raised on the East Side of Buffalo, NY–a ghetto in the truest sense of the word. Growing up, I felt more at ease around books than I did around other kids. Sometimes, I was accused of “acting white” because of my love of reading and writing. But really, I was just awkward, super-skinny, and shy.

There were no hood books in my neighborhood then. I haven’t been back there in a while, so I don’t know if there are any now. When I was a ghetto child, I read books like “Gone With the Wind,” “The Grapes of Wrath”: undeniably great works of literature, but ones that called Black people names like nigger and darky nonetheless. I read those books more times than I can recall, and the subtle messages encoded in those small, sharp words cut like glass and embedded themselves in my consciousness. They made me feel my Blackness, and yet by reading them somehow I was “acting white”.

I was extremely self-conscious during my high school years. I took refuge in Black literature. I read Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, and Zora Neale Hurston. Then in college, I took classes in Black literature. I discovered Black male writers, like Baldwin, Wright, and Haley.

Now I find myself asking the following question: What is the difference between a hood book and, say, “Native Son”? What is the difference between a hood writer and Richard Wright? Is it the name of the author or the quality of the writing? I won’t pass any judgments on the quality of the writing of most hood books. Critics of “Native Son” claimed that Wright paid more attention to his message than to his prose. Now it is considered a classic. So is Claude Brown’s “Manchild in the Promised Land.” And so is Piri Thomas’s “Down These Mean Streets.”

During my senior year in college, I took a class called Youth Voices on Lockdown. My fellow students and I went to Rikers Island and led workshops on creative writing, the arts, and social justice issues. We taught incarcerated teenagers. One day, while waiting for my usual group to arrive, I had a conversation with the Island Academy librarian. He took my classmates and I on a tour of the library, which housed a small collection of books of impressive quality. These great works of literature were available to the teenagers for free, but they never left the shelves. No one was interested in reading them. The one book he couldn’t keep on the shelves? A novel called “Project Chick.”

We can only take seeing ourselves through the eyes of another so much; we want the way we see the world to be validated; we want the way we see ourselves to be validated. I thank goodness I discovered Black literature in high school. And for the sake of the kids in my neighborhood, for the sake of the young men on Rikers Island, I thank goodness, too, for Hood Books.

The Island Academy librarian thought that as long as his kids were reading something–anything at all– there was no cause for complaints. Mental exercise, like physical exercise, is different for everyone. Some people like to run, some like to swim, some like to lift weights. Well, some people like Faulkner and some people like K’wan. Like the shelves at Rikers, when I browse the vendor tables in Bed-Stuy, or Harlem (or 34th Street during my lunch break), among the copies of “Homo Thug” and “Fatuou: African Girl in the City,” I can usually find a copy of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” or “Invisible Man.”

Jonathan Franzen refused to be in Oprah’s Book Club on the grounds that his work was high literature. I’ve read some high literature, and enjoyed it, but I’d be denying where I’m from–I’d be forgetting myself–if I didn’t root for low literature, too. If I didn’t root for books that make it OK, comfortable, normal, and natural for ghetto girls like me to read. And given the fact that every single time I walk by my local library, the Macon branch, it is closed, I have to respect those who see the need–our need, for literature–and fill it. I see my neighborhood improving its own literacy rate, and I respect that. I also respect the hood author–not just a writer, but an editor, a publisher, and a publicist. He or she hustles books like drug dealers hustled crack here in the 80’s. And while I frequently find myself wondering what has made literature the new hot street hustle, I certainly won’t be the one to knock it.

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