Friday, February 29, 2008

Black American Literature in the Mainstream

My report on Black American literature for my class in English and American Literature. As I was writing this, I noticed some parallels with the continuing quest for recognition -- or I should say, "the mainstream" -- in Philippine literature. Black American writers, by virtue of their culture and geography, have a leg up; but there's much we can learn from them. My conclusion, though -- "to lose the blinders" -- applies just as equally to Filipino writers: sometimes, we're so focused on our condition and our situation we lose sight of the wider audience -- and because of that, they lose sight of us.

When Prof. Robert Stepto asks at the end of his essay whether Black American literature will continue to be mainstreamed, the clarificatory question arises: what exactly does he mean by the "mainstream"? Tracing through the article, it becomes clear enough: publication, academic dissection, and even international awards. If we go by these criteria, then there is no question that Black American literature is already in the mainstream. And that would be that.

Such a view, though, seems overly narrow and self-congratulatory. The mainstream is, in fact, much more expansive than the confines of academic literati. A significant part of art is entertainment, and so the question is whether Black American literature today appeals to a larger mass audience. More importantly, in a worldwide industry dominated by American publishers, does Black American literature resonate with international audiences?

International bestselling authors like Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Terry McMillan seem to indicate so, and yet: is that all there is? In comparison with Black American success in sports, music, and cinema, the influence of Black American literature on the international scene seems paltry and anemic.

If we are to delve into the nature of mass appeal literature, it behooves us to study the selections of the Oprah Winfrey Book Club. Oprah was, after all, responsible for the bestseller status of many books in the past decade. What does Oprah's list tell us? A cursory analysis will show that, of the selections dating back to 1998, only a scant 13 books out of 68 were written by Black American authors. Of these, three were from Bill Cosby and four were from Toni Morrison. Of the 54 authors selected by Oprah, only eight were written by Black Americans. Why so few in a forum that would be a natural advocate for Black American literature?

When we switch the analysis to gender lines, the picture becomes more interesting. All the aforementioned international bestsellers were women. Within Oprah's selections, five of the eight Black American writers were women, a number in keeping with the gender ratio of the entirety of her list. However, remove Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier for their celebrity factor, and you really have only one male Black American author against the five.

So what can we conclude? The interest in these books and authors are not so much for their perspectives on Black American culture as they are for their feminist views. Closer examination of the themes of these books supports this claim.

By inductive logic, what can we conclude on a larger scale? The international mainstream appeal of Black American literature will not be because of their Black American heritage; it will be because of Something Else, of which Black American culture is a component tangential or subsumed. International readers will be less preoccupied with the color of the author and his history as they will be with what the author has to say concerning a universal human truth.

For Black American literature were to become truly mainstream, it must lose its blinders.