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The Black Winning Formula

July 8, 2010
I get serious this week.  None of my conversational acrobatics.  No bullet points.  No jokes that I’m aware of.  My Oh Crap Here Come Da Man voice, Ladies and Gentleman, here just for you — and with little to no prelude.  And on a Thursday.  This is The Weekly Wrap.

If only it were this easy...

Bernice McFadden is a black writer of some renown.  I haven’t read any of her books (maybe you have), but I know her name, and when I saw this story in the Washington Post, obviously I had to read it.  Race, and its varying effects on literature and marketing, is something I often think about.  Looking back, I’ve dedicated quite a few posts to the topic.  Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait to see them.  For me, they are in the past; where this blog is concerned, they are still in the future.

But if I am to be fair to myself, I’ve talked about race and literature, but I’ve also talked about the need for personal accountability.  I’ve joked, perhaps more than once (and again now), that this is the Little Republican coming out in me.  Also in my quest to eliminate blame and unworthiness from my mindset, I’ve pointed an unwavering finger at Christianity.  Religion, in case you didn’t know, is a critical part of the black formula.  As for winning…

Well, full disclosure: I’ve got problems with organized religion, OK?  It won’t get in the way of this post, but to me, if nothing else in this world: Bitching and praying are on the same celestial plane.  You can spend all your time bitching and never get anything done.  You can pray your cartilage away on your knees waiting on the Lord.  Me?  I never fail to do what I can for myself.  Pray, yes.  Bitch, maybe.  But always, always, I get up and do something.

As for race and authorship, it’s clear, at least to me, that I’m of two minds.  Sometimes I bitch, and sometimes I point the finger squarely in my own face.  And I suppose you could say that I pray, but it’s more like preying: I do my work, I gather my internal focuses, I wait on my opportunity to strike.  It’s a rather liberal interpretation of the Bible, I admit, but is there really a difference between praying and preying?

I don’t think so, so when I’m bitching about my failures as a writer, I try to be cognizant.  For me especially — and for all black writers — victimology is a dangerous trap.  Brothers and sisters:  You gotta watch yourself.

But the number of black novelists on the New York Times bestseller list (or the lack thereof) doesn’t lie.  You may disagree with what it means specifically, but it  tells a story.

So does the African American aisle at your local book store.  When I think of my own future marketing strategy, I have to wonder if anyone really knows how to do it — how to market me.  Because if I’m going to be marketed like every other black writer, I might as well do it myself.  The data doesn’t vouch for existing knowledge that works in my favor.  I gather from everything that I’ve seen, and especially what I haven’t, that I have just as good a chance as the next publishing industry lifer to get it done.

And that’s where I think Bernice McFadden is coming from — this is why she wrote this piece.  Racism is implied in the article, and, in my opinion, it leans a little too far in that hopeless direction, but it’s a frustrating situation.  I’m there; I understand.  You look at others, primarily white authors, and you know that they’ve got a winning formula.  For whatever reason — maybe luck, maybe truth — this winning formula casts black people in a supporting role.  When you line up the evidence from “The Help” through “Driving Miss Daisy” back to slavery itself, it seems like a continuance of the same fucking winning formula.

But where’s the black winning formula?  If you’re a black writer and you want to be successful, what do you do?  You can’t say it’s good writing (or the lack thereof) because if you really knew the publishing industry circa 2010, you’d know that good writing does not a bestseller make.  Never has, probably never will.

You can’t say it’s a matter of publishers and agents and editors knowing what will sell because it’s fairly obvious they don’t.  As a point, Kathyrn Stockett’s novel, which has been whipped enough by the black community to be an honorary slave descendant (Oh crap!  A joke!), was passed on by upwards of 40 agents.  Who knew it would sell 1 million copies, and so quickly?  Here’s the answer: No one.

Sure, a few black authors get their foot up writing Essence fiction and variants on the Slave narrative, but the question remains: What is the black winning formula for a black writer?  You get Nobel prizes for telling the Slave narrative and invoking whatever pathos, but Nobel prizes and similar awards are specious.  You get to go to Laud-ville and receive foaming-at-the-mouth prasie, but don’t you make any money, and without the money, you don’t open any doors.

Can you say: Lather and Rinse, but no Repeat?

You don’t sell 1 million copies as an Essence bestseller I don’t care what you say.

But wait, what about Terri McMillan… and I laugh, because any scientist knows that it ain’t true until you can REPEAT IT.  So who followed in Terri McMillan’s footsteps?  Who’s made the same kind of money as she has writing the same brand of story?  Where’s “Waiting to Exhale 2010”… but by another black author?  Where’s the movie?  If I missed the soundtrack, please somebody, let me know.

The more important question isn’t who, but will?  Will there be another Terri McMillan?  Is black sisterhood in fours the winning black formula for all-time?  Do black men not have a place in black literature except as antagonists and tormenters?  Will it forever be Slave narratives and its lingering effects through Reconstruction to present day — our Holocaust?  Is there a black person in the United States who can do it again — who can write a novel that every person in the country knows the name of?

And, oh yeah:  Can a black writer make some money doing it?  Open up doors for others.  Lather and Rinse, yes — but REPEAT.  That’s what we need to do.  The objective — the truth — is no farther away than your shampoo bottle.

If there is a black formula I don’t know what it is, but I do know what it isn’t.  It isn’t quitting.  Nothing from nothing leaves nothing — that much is clear.  So despite the repeating evidence to the contrary, if this writing isn’t to be in vain, we have to move forward.  We have to persist without fail, creating our own repeated destiny.  Not just black writers.  All writers.  I’ve made my pledge to stand.  I don’t want to speak for her, but I’m sure that’s what Bernice McFadden meant, too: As tiresome as it is, she’s persisting as well.  Others, like Carleen Brice, and of course her fabulous Meet Black Authors blog, are doing the same.

Preying for an opportunity.

Working on a formula.

Won’t you prey and work with me?

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