Cora Daniels’ Thoughts on Street Fiction

Over the weekend, I read Cora Daniels’ Ghettonation. In her incredible book, Ms. Daniels critiques how the United States has embraced a ghetto culture that “demeans women, devalues education, celebrates the worst African American stereotypes, and contribute to the destruction of civil peace.” Ms. Daniels’ book is thought-provoking and worth reading, but I found her comments on street fiction most interesting:

Street Fiction has been a constant strand in Black literature for decades. The first of such writers was probably Iceberg Slim, aka Robert Beck, who after being released from ten months of solitary confinement at Cook County Jail penned Pimp: The Story of My Life, published in 1969. Graphic in both language and subject matter, the book broke narrative ground by capturing Slim’s life as a pimp in Chicago in the 1950s. Ice-T pays homage to Iceberg Slim with his stage name. Pimp has been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, and Greek. In the Spring of 2001, Pimp briefly graced United States Press International’s top ten mass-market paperback list alongside To Kill a Mockingbird, The Hobbit, and Fahrenheit 451. His next book, Trick Baby, was about a mixed-race hustler dubbed Trick Baby because anyone with such a heritage had to be the product of Black prostitutes and their white tricks. Slim sold more than 6 million books before his death in 1992, making him one of the biggest-selling Black authors in history.

Donald Goines, also a pioneer in street lit, first read Iceberg Slim while doing his last stint behind bars. the result for Goines, a heroin addict who pimped and robbed to support his habit, was the birth of his first book, Dopefiend, an instant ghetto classic published in 1970 that still sells 200,000 copies a year, according to Holloway House, the small publisher in Los Angeles that publishes Goines’s books along with those of Iceberg Slim. Goines, who never kicked his drub habit, wrote sixteen books in just under five years. In 1974 while sitting at his typewriter in his home outside of Detroit, Goines was shot to death. He died at the same age as ODB, thirty-five years old. In the next room, his common-law wife Shirley, was also killed. Their two children hid under the couch. The murders were never solved, turning the author into a martyr. Goines is still hailed by rap culture today, frequently referenced in rhymes by a wide variety of artists, from Nas to DMX to Jadakiss to Ludacris.

Although ghetto lit never really died, after its burst in the seventies it was indeed ailing like the Blaxpoitation films and platform boots until it crossed paths with hip-hop. In 1999 raptivist Sister Souljah resuscitated the genre with her best-selling novel The Coldest Winter Ever, a brutal story about a drug dealer’s daughter. The success of the book revived ghetto lit, opening the door for a slew of self-published best sellers and start-up Black publishing houses devoted to cranking out books with titles such as Project Chick, Gangsta Life, and Road Dawgz. A typical tale is a mixture of foul language, bullets, drugs, and in-your-face sex and violence. About the only thing thing these books tend to be missing is the service of a copy editor to fix the grammar, spelling, and typos.

One of the more successful authors, Vickie Stringer, wrote her first novel while serving seven years in federal prison on drug charges. When she was released in 2001, she sent her manuscript across the publishing world, but mainstream publishers wouldn’t touch her book Let That Be the Reason. She got twenty-six rejection letters: “They said it was not well written,” she says. So Stringer borrowed $2500, printed 1,500 copies on her own, and began selling them from her car, in beauty salons, and to street vendors. (Sounds like rap back in the day, doesn’t it?) Her batch of books sold out in three weeks.

Acknowledging that it had become an underground hit, bookstores began to stock the novel, and within three years her first book had sold more than 100,000 copies. The publishing house that she founded, Triple Crown Publications, named for for the drug crew she used to run with in Ohio, Triple Crown Posse, is the undisputed leader in the ghetto fiction genre with fifteen authors, including a few still on lockdown whose book jacket photos were taken against the drab gray concrete walls of their jail cells. In the fall of 2004, Stringer, riding around Columbus in her BMW X5, bragged to the New York Times that she would pass the millionaire mark by the end of the year.

It took less than five years after Sister Souljah supposedly revived ghetto lit for the genre to overrun Black fiction. Black booksellers sheepishly admit that it often is what keeps their doors open. (The cringing from book folks comes from the quality of the writing, which most admit is just not very good.) Now mainstream publishers with dollar signs dancing in their heads are trying to take over (as with hip-hop). In 2004, Stringer signed a six-figure two-book deal with Simon & Schuster. And St. Martin’s Press has snapped up three Triple Crown authors. One of my finger-eatin’ tablemates at the authors’ dinner was a manager at a Waldenbooks in Chicago who complained much of the night that the only Black books the chain allows her to order are in the ghetto lit genre. For anything else, from Toni Morrison to terry McMillan to Paul Beatty to Ellis Cose, she has had to fight for shelf space. And usually loses.

That dominance stood out at the Black authors awards dinner. Popping BYOBs of Crystal and Dom P, the ghetto lit crowd was hard to ignore. Personally, I couldn’t stop staring at table upon table of the par-tay over here, par-tay over there.

As a Black writer, part of me was somewhat excited that “writer” and even “publisher” had entered people’s dreams alongside rapper and ballplayer. But listening that night to the thirty-fifth title that replaced every S with a Z and hearing plots that contained some horrific drug-sex-violence triangle, the Black woman in me found it hard to cheer anymore.

Champions of ghetto lit argue that the genre has gotten young Black folks to read and thus should be praised. This is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the entire phenomenon. When did our standards get so low that we are satisfied with simply reading? It is like being satisfied that our children are eating vegetables because they pour ketchup on their fries. Nourishment – physical and mental – requires more. Granted, there are worse things folks can be doing than reading trash. But what happens when that is all they are reading?

I was browsing a Black bookstore in Baltimore when a mother and her preteen daughter walked in for their weekly trip. It was payday, which meant the girl, who looked about twelve, got to buy a book. It struck me because, although payday was not a windfall in my house, growing up I did regularly babysit a kid, my brattiest charge, whose mom let him pick out a toy to buy every payday. Here the tradition was a book, which seemed a step in the right direction. The girl in Baltimore headed straight for the Donald Goines collection and was very upset when the book she wanted was out of stock. Instead of straying from the genre, though, she – bratlike, of course – was trying to convince her mom to allow her to get two books next payday instead.

James Fugate, owner of Eso Won Books, a Black bookstore in South Central L.A., has one word for ghetto lit: disturbing. The veteran bookseller is perhaps one of the most outspoken against the trend. “I’m sick of talking about it,” he says. “To me people can read what they want to read. I’ve never been opposed to books by Donal Goines and Iceberg Slim,” he admits. “But those books were bridges to other literature.” The ghetto lit being written today is mostly “mindless garbage about murder, killing, thuggery.” When you read this ghetto lit, he concludes, “nothing happens to your mind.” And that is the problem.

Which brings us back to, why? Fiction is supposed to be the stories our minds create. Why is this the fantasy we are choosing? (82 – 85)

So, why is this the fantasy we are choosing to read? What is the good and bad of street fiction?  Comments anyone?

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