The black shelves are over there.......
A question that has come up time and time again (in the real world, in the twitter world, on blogs, at conferences...) is the idea of separate shelving for African American books. If you follow me on twitter, you've heard this rant before. Why do we segregate books by skin color, blah blah blah. And, really, it isn't even the skin color of the character that matters, but the skin color of the author. You won't find the Derek Strange books (by Pelecanos...go read them now!) the AF-AM section.
Really? In 2011?
I was even more surprised when a librarian contacted me on this subject and said that some libraries also do this with non-fiction. So, I can look at books on finance, but if that book is written by a black guy it's not in with all the other finance books?
Really? In 2011?!
This infuriates me to no end, but most of you know this already. The policy at this library is to shelve by genre not by author skin color, but some individual branches still pull out books written by African Americans "because patrons like it." I'll be honest, I've always had people wanting a certain kind of book. Urban fiction. Romance. Horror. Contemporary Fiction. Christian fiction. I've never had anyone come in for Victoria Christopher Murray and leave with Zane because they're both black. I've never had anyone come in for Jan Karon and leave with Laurell K. Hamilton because they're both white. One is just as good as the other, right? We'll just throw it all up there together, call it the white authors section, and see what happens.
So, seeing as how my own ideas are pretty fixed on this topic, I thought I would enlist an opinion from someone else. I asked author Farrah Rochon a few questions about this issue. She has a vested interest in where her books are shelved, after all, and the ease with which readers can find them.
Q: How do you classify your books?
FR: I write straight contemporary romances. Although, now that I write for the Kimani Romance line under Harlequin's imprint, I guess I would classify my most recent books as "category-length" contemporary romances.
Q: Do you feel your books are relevant across cultures or are they written for a specific audience?
FR: My stories are absolutely relevant to people across all cultures and ethnicities. I touch on themes that relate to the human experience as a whole -- family, heartache, acceptance, love. If anything, people from the South may connect more with my single-title romances that were set in New Orleans, and an upcoming series I have with Kimani that centers on a small, fictional Louisiana town, but the books are written for everyone.
Q: Do you read about one culture exclusively?
FR: I read a broad spectrum of books. From contemporary romances set in the United States, to adventure romances in the jungles of Peru, and historical romances set in China's Tang Dynasty. In this ever-shrinking global society, I'm not sure how anyone can limit themselves to reading about only one culture. I've learned so much about how others live by reading novels in different cultures and featuring different ethnicities.
Q: Do you hear from readers who have found it frustrating that your books are not with the other books in the genre?
FR: Yes, I have. Most of my readers have been reading for years, long before there were entire publishing lines dedicated to publishing African American romance. And many of those readers still read their favorite authors who are shelved with the rest of the romances. They are not happy with having to go to an entirely different section of the store to get their other romance reads.
There are some fans who read solely African American romance authors, and a few of them admit that they like having all the books sectioned together. However, in my unscientific polling over the years, I have a feeling that this number is far outweighed by those who would rather have all the books shelved together. People tend to read by genre, not based on the author's skin color.
Q: In your opinion, what aspect of the practice of segregating books causes authors the most strife?
FR: By limiting African American authors to the "black section" of the store or library, you limit their exposure to a huge swath of the reading population, especially in the romance genre. It has been a few years since I've seen numbers on this, but at one time it was estimated that African American readers only made up about 13-15% of all romance readers. I don't know about my fellow African American romance writers, but when I sit down to write a novel, it is not with the intention of reaching only 15% of my genre's reading population. I want to share my stories with all romance readers.
Q: Why do you think African American romance novels are not widely read by readers of other races and/or ethnicities?
FR: It's simple: they don't have as much access to them. I constantly hear that white readers feel a bit awkward venturing into the "black section" of the store, and honestly, they have no reason to. There is ample reading material available in the romance section. However, I have to believe that non-African American readers would give black books a try if the books were shelved by genre and not by the author's skin color. The same goes for Latino romances. As the Latino population in the U.S. grows, I've found that some bookstores and libraries are starting to treat Latino romances the same way African American romances have been treated. It is extremely unfortunate.
Over the years, I've also heard that non-African American readers feel as if they will not relate to the characters in African American romances. This is a constant head-scratcher for me. If you can relate to a vampire/shapeshifter/fey, it truly isn't hard to relate to another human being who happens to have a bit darker skin color. Readers are missing out on absolutely fabulous books because of this hesitancy to try something that they feel is different. Again, I don't believe this difference exists. African American romances, just like all romances, focus on the love between two people. That's what it all boils down to.
There you have it. Other authors have written about this as well. N.K. Jemisin, author of the fantasy novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has a great post from 2010 about this very topic. And this article about L.A. Banks from 2009:
Does your library have a separate African American section? Fiction or Non-Fiction? Fiction and Non-fiction? Librarians, library patrons, authors...I wanna hear from you.