Ailene Hoover said, “I should think as an African American you’d be happy to see one of your own people get an award like this.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “Are you nuts?”
“I don’t think we have to resort to name calling,” Wilson Harnet said.
“I would think you’d be happy to have the story of your people so vividly portrayed,” Hoover said.
“These are no more my people than Abbot and Costello are your people,” I said, considering that I had perhaps offered a flawed analogy.
“I learned a lot reading that book,” Jon Paul Sigmarsen said. “I haven’t had a lot of experience with color--black people--and so Fuck was a great thing for me.”
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” I said. “People will read this shit and believe that there is truth to it.”
In one short exchange, Percival Everett bears witness to the problem plaguing African American writers, African American audiences, and the genre of African American literature itself. This scene originates from Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, which uses its protagonist Thelonious “Monk” Ellison to discuss the racism and stereotyping plaguing the publishing market through the rise of urban literature. In the scene in question, Monk finds himself on a panel of judges deliberating over awarding the Book Award to Fuck, the street lit novel Monk wrote out of frustration with the current literary market using a pseudonym. The book, which he intended as parody mocking the urban literature genre, becomes more critically acclaimed than anything Monk has previously published. What Everett underscores so prominently in this incisive exchange is the role black literature has taken on in shaping the public’s idea of what it means to be African American. Everett makes the lack of interaction Monk’s fellow judges have with black people incredibly apparent, and yet one judge goes on to say, “This is the truest novel I’ve ever read…It’s the real thing” (261). Each of them are extremely comfortable attesting to the authenticity of the black experience in Monk’s novel, despite Monk directly stating that Fuck is not representative of his experience or most African Americans. But the judges, and the larger public by extension, are confident in their idea of an African American identity, enough to decide what is a true depiction of it. Why? Because that identity has been refined and reinforced again and again in African American literature as it has evolved.
To answer the question of where this idea of the “authentic” African American identity originates from, we first have to understand what African American literature is and how it functions. In Kenneth Warren’s landmark text, What Was African American Literature, he defines it like this:
Some have argued that African American literary texts are distinguished by the way black authors, consciously and unconsciously, have worked and reworked rhetorical practices, myths, folklore, and traditions that derive from the African continent. Others have maintained that African American literary texts are defined by a prolonged engagement with the problem of slavery” (2).
In the middle of these two understandings of black literature is the idea that these literary works serve to portray the experiences and societal concepts that have shaped the condition of being black in America. From the perspective of the black authors, African American literature humanizes their community to the larger (white) public and to enact change regarding the treatment of their race. But for the publishers, who are instrumental in distributing these texts to the consumers, this literature is ripe for exploitation, as they can profit from marketing to the desires of a voyeuristic audience. It is in this conflict between the hopes of the black authors and the intentions of the largely white publishers that we find the genesis of this one-dimensional but easily accepted idea of the African American experience.
As a result, the objective of black literature evolved to prioritize an “authentic” picture of the African American experience. However, the pursuit of this goal requires black authors to play a game that is rigged against them. The concept of the African American identity as a singular monolith experience has been shaped to amass profit for the predominantly white publishers while also reinforcing the hegemonic forces at play. Consequently, publishers dispense this concept to a reading audience that perpetuates this manipulation into their own perception of the black community.
Thus, African American writers find themselves fighting an uphill battle when attempting to share the breadth of their experiences to a mainstream audience. The same audience seeking out genuine portrayals of African American perspectives will reject what doesn’t fit into the narrow definition of “blackness” that has been fortified throughout the development of the genre. I want to explore the origins of this idea of the African American identity – among the publishers, the consumers, and the writers – as well as where black literature must go next, in order to survive as a genre.
From its inception, African American literature could not exist without major publishing houses’ recognition of the profitability of the “African American experience.” But by commodifying the experiences of black people, the publishers offer white audiences a peek into a world radically different from their own while also creating a portrait of an African American identity that serves to reinforce the racial divide between white and black people. Warren portrays it best when he expounds, “One cannot treat African American literature as a literature apart from the necessary conditions that made it a literature. Absent white suspicions of, or commitment to imposing, black inferiority, African American literature would not have existed as a literature” (30). Black literature was birthed from the subjugation and oppression of black individuality and culture by white, dominating forces. The tension between black authors and white publishers was built into the genre from its birth, as these writers used literature as a political tool to reform society while forced to depend on those who benefited from the status quo. A white presence was necessary to the flourishing of African American literature, beginning with slave narratives, as “[l]earning to read and write also demonstrated black intelligence and humanity, according to racist standards, hence the requirement that slave narratives be authenticated by prominent white citizens” (Larkin 6). Slave narratives served a noble purpose: to humanize slaves and garner support for abolition from the larger white community. The publishers also profit by capitalizing on these audiences’ desire to peek into the lives of a community unlike their own. While black authors’ fidelity was to the betterment of their race, those publishing their books sought to benefit themselves, and the distinction between the publishers’ and authors’ intentions become clear with the abolishment of slavery.
The idea of African Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was not considered in terms other than “slave” or “free”. With the abolishment of slavery, communities were forced to confront race as a social concept rather than a biological fact, threatening the status quo. As John K. Young explains, “Race itself operates through this tension between fictionality and materiality…race becomes socially real, so that people learn to see themselves as black and white, are treated as black and white, and are motivated by considerations arising out of this group identity” (193). Cases such as Plessy vs. Ferguson, which obligated those in power to consider the inconsistencies in their common understanding of race and what makes someone “black,” threatened the stability of society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As publishers of black literature were mainly white, their biases arising from this “group identity” leaned towards maintaining the status quo of a racial divide. They found that literature could sustain the materiality of race by portraying African Americans as so wholly “other” that they had innate behaviors and attitudes regardless of how light their skin tone was. In promoting works that represented a highly stereotypical idea of slave life and black experiences, “the concept of an authentic black type suggested the existence of an ontologically ‘true’ essence of black racial existence and it distinguished whiteness from the blurring potential of social and intellectual ‘miscegenation’” (Eversley 2-3). They used literature to validate an inherent quality of race that does not exist and created the idea of an “authentic” picture of black life, a concept which soon became rooted in the genre.
A prominent example of the shift in publishers’ intentions is the promotion of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s collections of poetry. Dunbar’s three works, Oak and Ivy (1893), Majors and Minors (1895), and Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896) featured poetry which revolved around slave life, voicing the narrative in a “negro dialect.” His first work, Oak and Ivy, included few verses in this slave vernacular, but it was that aspect of his work that was most emphasized and that secured financing for his second work. The rationale was that Dunbar’s poems would provide white audiences with a tangible difference between black people and white people, something that would reestablish and legitimize the racial hierarchy in this new post-slavery environment. This sudden rise in interest for Dunbar’s works “called attention to the critical notion of the ‘real’ Negro – an idea that emerges as a central concern in early-twentieth-century American social and literary history when ideologies of race establish distinct, discursive categories of ‘white’ and ‘black’” (Eversley 2). By emphasizing these works, publishers create the notion of “real” African Americans, who are starkly different from white people (and implied to be inferior) as evidenced from their speech patterns, actions, and thoughts.
The publishers discovered in popularizing these slave-centered narratives that white readers had an insatiable desire for peering into these generalized versions of black culture. The void left by slavery created a white society that searched for a physical confirmation of their racial superiority, and black literature rose up as a way to satisfy that cultural demand. Recognizing that desire, the publishing houses took advantage of this obsession with African American life to reinforce the idea of blacks as “other” while also fetishizing their lifestyles. However, this is not to imply that the publishers acted from some type of allegiance to racial purity. They valued profits above all and their own biases next. As a result, they drew in white audiences while also refusing to upset the social order. They shaped the idea of blackness into a smooth, easily digestible pill, opening the door to the voyeuristic stares of white readers and reaping the benefits on the backs of black writers.
This practice of capitalizing on the preoccupation with the African American experience follows into the publishing practices of early-twentieth-century black fiction. Boni and Liveright, the publisher of Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923), advertised the book as being about black people and written by a black person despite Toomer’s pleas against the portrayal of the book along such racial lines (Young 3). Not only did his publisher go against his wishes, but it deliberately marketed the book “with its author’s race emphasized, this circumscribing the book within the usual dynamic of representing the exotic black experience to curious, implicitly white readers” (9). This conflict displays the weakness of the intentions of black authors against the will of their white publishers. In a similar case, Nella Larsen wrote her 1929 novel Passing as an attempt to expose the arbitrary nature of racial classification by featuring a white-passing heroine. The purpose of her novel was to prove that there is no biological factor that decides a race’s superiority to highlight the inefficacy of the markers of “black” and “white” to reflect a person’s identity. But Larsen’s publishers categorized the text within their genre of “Negro in Unusual Fiction,” reducing the book down simply to the marker of “black.” Her intentions are unimportant as “they produce and distribute her work, but do so ultimately according to the terms in which (black) texts are marketed to (white) audiences” (24). The futility of the authors’ will against the publishing houses’ powers engenders the question of how these texts can actually benefit the community they depict. Any effect of black literature on the condition of African Americans is dulled by its marketing. By classifying black literature and the black characters within those texts as “other,” these works serve to maintain the social order which subjugates African Americans. The implicit messaging of African Americans as “other” prevents readers from comprehending the deeply racist ideals America is built on, as the reading audience maintains the impression that the problems concerning African Americans only pertain to them and no one else.
On the other hand, what evolves with twentieth-century fiction is the growth of a black reading audience alongside the already established white reading public during the Harlem Renaissance. James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which was first published in 1912 to little success, was reissued in 1927 by Knopf to a whole new literary public. It displayed the duality of the publishers’ objective as they pushed this novel through to a newly broadened audience, “speaking anew to a much wider black readership in Harlem beyond while also being marked for white readers as a composite account of an exoticized black experience” (13). This once again displays their fidelity to profits first, before any sort of movement or cause. These publishers target the growing black community with one hand while also taking care of the needs of their established white audience and their curious desires on the other hand. This same pattern repeats itself as we move into late-twentieth-century and early-twenty-first-century African American fiction, in which blackness is put on display. There was a publishing boom for black literature in the 1980s and 1990s due to current events during that time, which brought race to the forefront of the American public’s mind. These events included the “War on Drugs,” 1992 Los Angeles riots, and the O.J. Simpson trial, to name a few. They resulted in an expanding market for African American literature. Lesley Larkin describes the movement as such:
Perhaps unsurprisingly, during this period of retrenchment in the project of social justice, popular interest in black people’s lives and culture proceeded apace…And black literature...gained its largest audience yet...This revolution in publishing resulted not only from white interest but also from a growing black middle class and active black literary societies and book clubs (131).
Unlike past interest in black literature, the market for these works included both black and white audiences. The African American community was finally in a place where they could support their fellow authors and invest in literature about their own experiences. The problem was that the prominent literature thus far presented a homogenized view of blackness for the sole purpose of white voyeurism. The consequence of this sustained publishing practice was a shared perception of the “true” African American experience by these white consumers.
Returning to Everrett’s Erasure, Monk acts as a symbol for the African American writers who have been used by their publishers and their audience. Larkin notes, “Monk critiques a popular culture in which the significance of black people is measured in entertainment value, a concern directly related to Monk’s critique of the publishing industry” (155). The richness and prestige of African American culture has been reduced to a form of entertainment, a guilty pleasure for consumers to partake in. Black individuals such as Monk have watched their identity minimized to caricatures. White individuals like Monk’s fellow judges feel comfortable attesting to the veracity of the depiction of African Americans because the African American identity has become so detached from the people themselves. As a result, black literature still eludes the goals that set off its initial creation.
The troubling aspect of the marketing of African American literature is the way it has shaped consumers’ perception of the black community. It has reinforced this simplified idea of black life so thoroughly that readers easily accept any stereotype depicted and then apply that stereotype to the community as a whole. Toni Morrison describes this as “the simple expedient of demonizing and reifying the range of color on a palette, American Africanism makes it possible to say and not say, to inscribe and erase, to escape and engage, to act out and act on, to historicize, and render timeless” (7). The idea of blackness has been manipulated to the point that the reading audience has no real concept of what truly represents African American culture and what is parody. Texts which validate ingrained biases rise in popularity and continue to form the popular image of black people in America. In that case, some attention should be paid to the consumers who read this literature and how their reaction influences the trajectory of the genre.
When Lee Daniels’ Precious premiered in 2009, it was greeted with reactions ranging the spectrum of high praise to strong criticism. The film, based on the 1996 novel Push by Sapphire, details the journey of an illiterate black female teenager growing up on the rough streets of New York. The book and the movie are lauded for their raw portrayal of oppression in all its forms, alongside domestic and sexual abuse and the resilience of its heroine. However, it is critiqued for its reinforcement of negative African American stereotypes and presenting the lives of those in the black community as circus-like. Larkin completed a thorough analysis on the reaction to Push and similar books in her piece, “Race and the Literary Encounter : Black Literature From James Weldon Johnson to Percival Everett,” but the section that struck me the most was her description of a review of Precious by Robert Ebert, a reputable film critic.
In describing Gabourey Sibide’s performance of the titular character, he says:
“She so completely creates the Precious character that you rather wonder if she’s very much like her.” He goes on to express surprise that Ms. Sidibe is in fact “engaging, outgoing and 10 years older than her character.” This common assessment – this surprise – demonstrates how difficult it is for some viewers not to interpret a large, black, female body as, by definition, intellectually stunted and introverted…His remarks also unintentionally suggest that audience belief in stereotype contributes authenticity to Precious” (Larkin 127).
This unironic description of Gabourey Sidibe in relation to Precious shocked me, because I do not believe Egbert intended to be racist. As Larkin said, he saw a large, black body on the screen and immediately interpreted it as deficient, lacking, and introverted. Egbert expresses genuine surprise to find that all large, black women were not like Precious, even the actress who portrays her. This, to me, is indicative of the huge role of the audience in interpreting and externalizing the African American texts being presented for their consumption. As Larkin continues on to detail, “although negative reviews of The Color Purple, Precious, and Push focus on the texts themselves, they also often acknowledge – sometimes inadvertently – the role audiences play in identifying, ignoring, demanding, or rejecting stereotypes” (127). When white audiences – and even black and other minority audiences – accept the stereotypes represented in these works, they apply that knowledge to their interactions with the black community. The audience’s interpretation of these works holds tremendous power over the meaning of the genre through the audience’s own understanding of the African American experience.
Black literature has always had to work in concert and conflict with those who read it. With the rise of black readership in the twentieth century, there grew a concept of the “double audience.” The double audience stems from W.E.B. Dubois’s The Souls of Black Folk, in which he introduces the concept of “double consciousness.” Double consciousness describes “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others…two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (2). This concept describes the isolation felt by African Americans as they are made to feel like outsiders in their own home, constantly aware of their alienation from society. There is a competing urge to reject their own identity to fit into societal standards and to have pride in their race and culture.
One of the most important elements of double consciousness is the Veil, which is the layer of oppression that hinders African Americans from becoming true, equal members in American society with their white counterparts. It is the Veil that gives way to this double audience, as white readers clamor for a genuine, candid representation of the black experience while rejecting any perspective which seeks to dissipate the racial boundaries that inhibit the black community. Black writers have a responsibility to themselves and to the race that they are representing, and yet they have to remain cognizant of the white audience that consumes their works and seek an “authentic” experience from it. The white audience wants these unfiltered narratives, but do not make the effort to dissolve the Veil, the barrier subjugating these writers, with the knowledge they gain from these works. It leaves black authors in a delicate, tenuous position, because they cannot control who reads their work.
At first this double audience was seen as a problem to correct:
“Authors’ and publishers’ responses to the problem of the double audience have ranged from a deliberate shielding of a writer’s identity because of race…to a more engaged but still conflicted author-publisher relationship during the New Negro Renaissance…to explicit distrust from Black Arts writers for the mainstream publishers...to the creation of several units within larger houses focusing specifically on African American books and readers…The historical process demonstrated in these examples has shifted, but certainly not eliminated, the problem of double audience” (Young 20).
There is no way to eliminate or “solve” the double audience because, quite simply, “minority texts produced within a majority culture will continue to be marked as such, one way or another” (20). As I have previously detailed, the way publishers market to mainstream audiences contributes to this problem, but the overall reactions and desires of these consumers cannot be controlled by the authors or the publishers. Still, the double audience is a reality that African American literature must respond to. Larkin uses Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man as an example, noting, “Johnson creates a ‘double’ narrator specially designed for a ‘double audience’ that includes readers steeped in stereotype…Johnson’s novel suggests not only that readers contribute to the racial meaning of literary works but also that literature contributes to the racialization of readers” (27). The legacy of these black literary novels is shaped by the interpretation from their readers, but literature still retains the power to reshape their readers’ perspectives and perception of race.
The main problem originates from the culture of reading and interpreting black literature that the reading public has internalized since the inception of the genre. It is the issue of “the American habit of focusing on one black novel, or one black film, at a time, [which] dramatically hinders the interruptive project” (Larkin 128). Consumers have adopted this practice of holding up each black text as a documentary-like account of “the African American experience.” As if black people are zoo exhibits, the readers interpret African American works as studies on their behavior patterns, applicable to the community at large. Everett addresses this issue directly with his inclusion of both a contemporary narrative in Monk’s story and a racialized narrative in Van Go’s story: “The black caricature created by Erasure’s protagonist is taken as “authentic” by many readers because, Everett argues, narratives of black degradation are easily accepted as representative by a white audience primed to ignore the diversity of black experience” (149). The onus for the deviation of the African American identity is not completely on the black writers, including those who write books that feature heavy stereotypes such as Push. Part of the problem is a failure of reading, of understanding different perspectives. Literature is not simply an act of writing and putting forth a message into the world; that message must also be received and understood, or at the very least, effort must be put forth to decipher the multiple layers of meaning. That has not been the case with African American literature, as this one-dimensional, generalized view of the black perspective is easily and willingly accepted by the reading public at large. But by encouraging a reading culture which motivates audiences to question what they’ve read and by emphasizing the diversity of experience within black culture, the genre can truly flourish.
The central power that readers possess is their ability to transform a work through deep and accurate comprehension. In Erasure, the judges’ easy acceptance of the authenticity of Fuck for all African Americans “exposes the capacity of readers to see what they wish to see, reading past whatever does not match their prejudices” (149). Even in contemporary literature, black literature is still used to reinforce the racist structures of our society, which is demonstrated by the fact that readers willingly eschew the details of a text that do not reaffirm their internalized preconceptions. The inclination to accept the most severe depictions of African American life as fact heavily impacts the development of the genre, as the consumers’ absorption of these stereotypes influences their understanding of the African American identity. To put it simply, “The responsibility for the circulation or interruption of stereotype applies to both filmmakers and audiences, writers and readers” (3). Because of the lack of responsibility taken up by readers, the black authors of these texts are obligated to recontextualize the place of their literature within the American canon.
With publishers that control the marketing and messaging of their narratives and an audience primed to interpret their words in a manner that bolsters their own prejudices, a black writer must always in part remain conscious of how their work will reflect on their community. They are made to bear the weight of the success and triumph of their race by having each of their literary works valued in terms of how they benefit the community at large. Naturally, that pressure influences their ability to portray their individual experiences.
Since the establishment of the African American literature genre, there was the question of what it meant for minority works to be included within the canon of American literature. Its rise in the late eighteenth century called into question how American literature should be defined, what “the relationship [is] between literature and place, between literature and nationality, and particularly about the suitability of inherited literary forms” (Bell 294). What did these texts mean for the larger public’s depiction of America and its community and values? How should they be considered alongside the works of already well-regarded white authors? If minority literature is classified as “other,” whether the writer is of a non-white race or a woman, then it also designated as less important, outside of the “normal.” These works are not valued for their commentary on the human condition, on life in America. An African American’s take on life is seen as specific to them, with no bearing on the non-black reading community’s way of living. Their literature functions to isolate them because of their publishers’ efforts to generalize their story into a homogenous, tidy box that prevents the influences of the texts from deepening the reader’s understanding of a community long misunderstood. And as such, African American writers struggle to portray a perspective outside of what has already been fortified by mainstream publishers. Simultaneously, readers may not engage with what they feel is inauthentic when comparing African American literature to rhetoric on issues of social justice that they are accustomed to. All of these elements compel African American writers to consider what purpose they are writing for when they attempt to have their voices heard in a market and world that is not prepared to truly listen.
African American literature demands meaning behind every word and for its authors to be conscious of the ideas they put forth into the world as they combat mainstream society’s use of black literature to present race as a biological fact. “The absence or presence of a written literature was the measure of the potential, innate humanity of a race,” Warren describes in defining the purpose of black literature (14). Quite literally, African American writers carry the humanity of their people on their backs. The genre began from this purpose, with slave narratives from authors like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Ann Jacobs that impressed the humanity and mental equality of slaves upon the northern white community. As African American literature progressed, the obligation to reaffirm the rights and equality of Black Americans continued. Black texts could not function as art for art’s sake, because “[t]he recognition of African American art simply as art would depend on society’s achievement of racial equality” (13). As long as “the Veil” is maintained, continuing the layers of oppression that affect African Americans as a whole, these works would serve an agenda whether intentionally or not. Each work in the African American literature genre comes with an unshakeable duty, a purpose that they are chained to, that requires these texts to act as an agent of societal change. In order for their art to be recognized at all, both from a white or black audience, it must serve to maintain the right to be recognized as equals.
Following from these expectations, the question that comes to my mind next is best summarized by Toni Morrison’s words, as expressed in Larkin’s piece: “What happens to the writerly imagination of a black author who is at some level always conscious of representing one’s own race to, or in spite of, a race of readers that understand itself to be ‘universal’ or race-free?” (4). What hope is there for the black writer that seeks to share their experiences with the world? When their identity is interpreted in a racist light by a reading public that does not understand itself to be racist, how can they flourish? Though the purpose of African American literature seems to revolve around breaking free from the invisible chains that oppress black people, their cultural identity also became its own barrier to universal acceptance. As Warren explains, “Many black writers were expected to produce work that exhibited or presumed black difference as a distinct and needful thing, even as they acknowledged, lamented, and sought to overcome the conditions that produced that difference” (27).
The contradiction between honest perspectives and universal acceptance leaves African American authors with no recourse for true freedom of expression. Their white counterparts have leeway to explore the full breadth of the human condition and are acclaimed for their diverse perspectives and unique writing styles. But for black writers, the larger public ascribes their identity to them and solidifies it with the distribution of texts that only pander to one depiction of blackness. They are dissuaded from writing narratives that disrupt or depart from the familiar stereotypes that readers are accustomed to. As a result, they are forced into a corner, because whatever they write must first combat or pander to the endorsed perception of blackness before proceeding from that purpose. It is my belief that the development of the genre will remain stunted if only texts that act as political commentary or rely on shock value to portray the suffering endured by African Americans are worthy of attention and considered a success. American culture needs to evolve to disrupt this habit “of focusing on one black novel, or one black film, at a time.” Like their white peers, black literature must be allowed to present the wide variety of perspectives, to allow for their differences and complexities, and to enrich the idea of the African American identity as a multi-faceted concept that changes based on the experiences of those within the community. To fight against the commercialized depiction of the singular African American experience, the focus must turn to the layers of that experience.
I want to return to Warren’s What Was African American Literature. After looking back at the canon of black literature and viewing the themes and origins of these texts, he comes to the conclusion that there is no African American literature anymore. Viewing black texts solely as a means of activist literature for combating Jim Crow-era laws, Warren claims, “If black writing is no longer expected to protest segregation or to serve as a metric in the onward advancement of the race, then it no longer exists as a literature” (126). I disagree with him on two fronts: that African American literature does not serve as a metric of the advancement of the race anymore and that this genre must protest something to exist as a genre.
I view African American literature as the acknowledgement and exploration of being black in America by bearing witness to the internal and external effects of living in a racialized society. I call it a genre because I believe that there is a common thread of literature written by black authors across the different sub-genres, whether it is realistic or fantasy, romance or action, because race has an influence in all these authors’ lives despite their differing backgrounds. Even if works of African American literature do not directly protest a rule or law, it serves another purpose: representation. I argue that this goal is just as important. These texts still serve as a metric for the advancement of the race, because I believe that the African American community cannot truly claim equal standing in society unless their individual perspectives are portrayed in all their diversity.
While Warren acknowledges that there is still dramatic inequality in black communities, he disputes that black literature, in its current state, cannot enact any real social change. However, as I have established, this genre determines the American perspective of the African American identity. The commercialization of the mythical, singular “African American experience” stunts the growth of African American literature, regardless of how popular a book becomes. Larkin said it best: “Lack of diversity in literary representations of blackness is a more significant problem than the specific representations derived from individual works” (162). Black literature should be broad enough to depict the variety of perspectives, to be in conversation with one another, and to enrich its audience with the values and culture of a group that has not been fully appreciated within the American canon. If we reach for these ideals, we can elevate the perception of black culture and blackness itself. To fulfill that vision, readers, writers, and the literary market must demand diverse works that take effort to peel back the artifice and uncover deeper truths.