‘Precious’ Little of Value in Ghetto Lit

Juan Williams, Wall Street Journal, November 5, 2009

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As the author of books on black history and black culture, I was disappointed but not surprised. To see a working-class 30-ish black woman with a book these days is almost always to find her reading a selection from the fastest-growing segment of African-American letters, a genre called “ghetto lit” or “gangster lit.”

The best that can be said about these books is that they are an authentic literary product of 21st-century black America. Black women are much bigger readers than black men, and gangster lit dominates the best-seller list in Essence Magazine, which calculates rankings using sales at black-owned bookstores nationwide. Recent titles shout out to the hard, fast lifestyle: “Bad Girlz 4 Life,” “Still Hood” and “From the Streets to the Sheets.” Some of the most prominent authors include Vickie Stringer, who wrote “Let That Be the Reason,” a semi-autobiographical work, while the future ghetto-lit publisher was doing seven years for drug trafficking; and Nikki Turner, who wrote “A Hustler’s Wife” and “Death Before Dishonor” (co-authored with hip-hop star 50 Cent).

The black imagination as revealed in gangster lit is centered on the world of drug dealers–“dough boys” who are heavy with drug money–and the get-rich-quick rappers and athletes who mimic the druggie lifestyle. And there are lots of “ghetto-fabulous” women, referring to themselves as bitches, carrying brand-name handbags and wearing big, gaudy jewelry. Attitude and anger are everything. The dispiriting word “nigger” is used freely by black characters talking about one another. There are guns and drive-by murders; hot sex that emphasizes the pleasure of getting it on with no strings attached; women without husbands and children without fathers; people who brag about being street-smart and then drop out of school and find themselves unemployed.

At least two black-owned publishing houses have been created as a result of the growing market for these books. {snip}

This week a new movie, “Precious,” comes to the screen that is based on one of these books, a novel called “Push” by Sapphire. The depraved story focuses on an overweight black girl, sexually abused by her mother and twice made pregnant by her father. She also contracts AIDS. But even with death hanging over her she rises from that miasma to find some self-esteem. The movie features Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz and Mo’Nique. Two titans of contemporary black culture, Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, are listed as executive producers of the movie. They have agreed to use their high public profiles to promote the film. Both have shared painful stories from their childhoods–Winfrey of being raped and Perry of being beaten. The movie was celebrated with awards at the Sundance Film Festival and won rave reviews at Cannes.

“Precious” {snip} gives prominence to the subculture of gangster-lit novels, bringing them into the mainstream. Not only the best but the worst that can be said about these books is they are an authentic literary product of 21st-century black America. They are poorly written, poorly edited and celebrate the worst of black life.

Much as rap music {snip} has displaced jazz or soul singers on the black music charts, gangster lit now overshadows the common late 20th-century theme of black middle-class striving. As one black journalist, Nick Chiles, told an interviewer: “This phenomenon is like a weed that takes over the whole garden.” Any story celebrating the beauty and strength of black family life, the power of education, and the desire to succeed in the workplace and in business {snip} is now out of fashion.

{snip} It is hard to believe, but legendary black writers telling stories about the full scope of the black experience, from Langston Hughes to Toni Morrison, are being pushed aside. Inspirational books on black history or the civil-rights struggle are now for the classroom only. Even libraries now stock gangster-lit novels, because they bring new readers in the door.

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Last year Pew released a poll showing that substantial numbers of black people now believe that there are two kinds of black people in America: those with an education, jobs and stable families and those being left behind. The poor might like gangster lit or ghetto lit for its reflection of their lives. But they are a secondary market. What makes the genre dominant at this moment is that middle-class black women have made it their escapist reading. They are the ones publishers seek to titillate and thrill.

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