The black shelves are over there.......

Speaking of collection maintenance...

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.

I've tried to trace this back to see where it began because it wasn't always this way. Books used to be shelved by genre in fiction, and by Dewey in non-fiction. My guess (and it's only a guess) is that once upon a time there wasn't much in the way of current, popular fiction written about black people by black people. There was Terry McMillan...and there were others, but she was the big household name. Lots of people came into the library asking for her books, and when they'd read them they wanted "other books like hers." So, librarians just pulled out everything written by black people and put it on a shelf. Right? "Black" was its own new genre. It even has stickers!

Yes, there was Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison, and Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston before McMillan. They were shelved in regular fiction back in the day. Now, it is inconsistent whether these are pulled out of the regular collection. Sometimes, they are considered "classics" and left in with general fiction. Sometimes, they are considered "classics" and put into a separate classics section (regardless of race). Sometimes, they are shelved next to urban fiction because the authors are black.

Times have changed, but libraries and bookstores haven't changed. Someone may come in and ask for an "African American book," but there isn't just one answer to that anymore. We can't automatically reach for Waiting to Exhale and expect that to be the book a patron wants. Actually, it is more likely that a librarian or bookstore clerk would automatically reach for Teri Woods than Terry McMillan these days. That's what all the kids are looking for when they say African American fiction, right? God forbid they want something with vampires in it, or a straight up romance. The possibilities are endless. There are so many African American authors in the world now, and the only thing they have in common is the color of their skin. The color of their skin tells you absolutely nothing about what lies between the covers of their books. Yet, we'll let a fan of mystery novels see every book we have except for the ones written by people with brown skin. If you want books by those people, you have to go over to the other section, and sort through the space ships, wizards, unicorns, vampires, and romance novels by brown skinned people until you find a mystery you might want to read.

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:

"I had about 300 people in my room for a book signing and all but maybe five of them were black. I had so many white fans complaining about how hard it was to find my books and asking me why it was in the black section. I didn't have an answer. I went back and told my publisher that they had to do something. They needed to get me into the mainstream section of the stores."
With her publisher, St. Martin's Press, Banks fought the booksellers and won. Her books were moved to the same section featuring King, Rice and Meyer. "And from that point on, my career took off," she said.

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.


Megan Frampton said…
The thing that was going through my head reading this is said by Farrah in her last answer: I would be uncomfortable going to find books in an Af-Am section because I am white. There are a bunch of reasons why that's so, and not all of which I am happy with myself about (mostly, I wouldn't want anyone to think I was trying to be 'hip' by reading in another culture, even tho they wouldn't think twice about me reading historical romance, and I haven't been a duchess lately, either)
And also, as she also points out, why do I need to? There are many more white authors in the traditional genre sections I haunt than black.
Also, as I was thinking about this, to get ludicrous, does this mean Lisa See or Jhumpa Lahiri or Jo Nesbo get put into their respective Asian or Norwegian sections?
My library shelves everybody equally, thank goodness, so if I want to read Octavia Butler or Walter Mosley or Farrah Rochon I can.
Kwana said…
Wonderful post. This bugs me to no end.The division of lines and separate shelving makes me crazy. It insures the readers don't finnd the authors and also insures the AA authors don't potentially make as much as their White counterparts.
The more I think about this topic, the more difficult it becomes to tackle.

African-American culture exists, yet it also overlaps with mainstream culture (fo example, a black family and a white family both celebrate the 4th of July with a backyard barbecue, but there may be subtle differences in the menus).

African-American audiences and writers want books that reflect their life experiences and their culture, yet the most basic themes in fiction (particularly genre fiction) are shared across multiple cultures.

African-American audiences want to know a bookstore cares enough about their patronage to create a space specifically for the books they like to read, yet it "Otherizes" the fiction (and booksellers order their stock based on their customer demographics).

In the end, the Otherization deals African-American genre fiction a double-edged sword: we speak out against the unfairness of segregation and people either feel obligated to seek out the books, or they feel their reading preferences shouldn't be dictated by race. And then, because the readers didn't grab the book based on the cover, title, buzz, author, or blurb, they tend to approach it with a jaundiced eye, and one or two "bad" experiences justifies their decision that AA romance is not for them.
robin said…
Yay, thanks for commenting!

@Evangeline I think it comes down to which is more harmful. Even a lot of black book readers are missing out on these books because they don't specifically go to a different section. A romance reader may be looking for their paranormals, and their historicals, and their favorite authors, and won't ever encounter a book with character that look like them on the cover because those books don't exist in that section. And on the reverse side, someone may be looking for an urban fic novel, and overlook them because all they see are books the same sized but with a definite Christian tilt to them. (Urban Christian). They might think that is all there is, and walk away unsatisfied. Or vice versa, people looking for Christian fiction and all they see are books called Candylicker and Thug-a-licious. I'm all for shelving "like with like" I only wish that what made two books alike was based on what's actually in the book, and not on the color of the person who wrote it. I'm going to sell a person who loves Urban fiction a book by George Pelecanos much quicker than I'll ever get them to read an Octavia Butler. Yet we'll put Butler in with Urban Fic because her skin is brown.
bitchylibrarian said…
I just want to hug this blog entry. Is that possible? Please?

My library is one that shelves both fiction AND nonfiction separately. It's incredibly frustrating from an access standpoint. I'm running all over the place, showing people books when they ask for something simple like the poetry collection. I have to ask "Do you want poetry written by black people." It's fucking awkward is what it is.

I was at a library once that didn't separate anything out. Not even an urban section. It wasn't a library in a community with a huge black popultion, but the fact that people could BROWSE and choose whatever book they wanted? Yeah. That.

I've gotten shit for reading "black books" at my library. Um, no. I'm reading a BOOK. The author's skin color doesn't denote any sort of ownership of the book, just like I'd never ask someone why they were reading a "white book." People read BOOKS.

But you know my feelings on this topic. I have a lot of them. And they are angry face ones.
@shinyinfo said…
I'm having a similar situation. I'm developing an LGBT Arab American collection. I'd like it to be a separate collection from the general Arab American collection because it's a separate and unique collection but I also don't want it to be taken out of the general narrative. The ideal situation would be duplicate copies but we don't have the money or space for such a thing.

What I'm probably going to do is put book plates in each of the books with a QR code pointing to an LGBT Arab American online bibliography. TRICKY YO! I talk about it on my blog:
I love ShinyInfo's comment on how she's dealing with the collection separation and I love this post! We don't have a separated out collection at my Library and I would fight hard against it if anyone suggested such a thing. Great post as usual Robin!
leslie said…
for years the Newark (NJ) Public Library didn't have an African American room, and people kept asking for one, so popular titles mostly go there, and a staffer in the room directs people to the rest of the library for other materials.
Helgagrace said…
My library does have a separate section for Urban Fiction, as it does for Romance, SF/F, Mystery, Horror, General Fiction, Non-fiction, and Western paperbacks. There are a few hardbacks in the Urban Fiction section as well that I'm not sure go very well with the rest of the collection (Chester Himes, for example--but McMillan is in general fiction), and there are some duplicates in the general fiction collection. Push, by Sapphire, is one of those that you will find in both places. The reason this section was created, as far as I understand, was to meet the huge volume of patron requests for "urban books" or "drama books," etc., and there are patrons (of all races) who go exclusively to those shelves and don't ever glance at any of the other sections.

What they are missing by not looking in any other sections is the majority of African American romance (largely Kimani) that I order in paperback format, as well as books by L.A. Banks (kept in the SF/F section) and anything by an African American author that Tech Services has decided to catalog as "general fiction" instead of any of the other categories.

I don't know if I'm entirely comfortable with the segregation of titles into the Urban Fiction section. I would like to think that an Urban Fiction title written by a Latino or white author would also find a home there. I do my best to make my patrons aware that the Urban Fiction section is not the "Black Section" but really just the Urban Fiction section and that other books--such as the Kimani romances, such as the more classic titles referenced by Robin, or pretty much any other book that they could possibly want, no matter what race the author happens to be--are also available.

The idea of dividing non-fiction by the author's race is so ludicrous it hardly bears mentioning. Why on earth would libraries make the lives of patrons and librarians so much more complicated than necessary? At one of our branches, which is located in a heavily African American part of the city, I know that they do put Af-Am stickers on books that might be of interest to students doing projects, etc., but they are still shelved with all the rest of the non-fiction, much like books here at the central library have YA stickers but are shelved with the rest of the non-fiction collection. I don't know if this is really necessary, and how much it helps when the ethnic makeup of a neighborhood is likely to change over time, as different populations move in.

It is definitely a tradition and system that deserves questioning and could definitely be adjusted in many of our libraries. I'm glad that Robin wrote such a great post and got us all to think about it.
iferlohmann said…
My library doesn't separate out fiction or nonfiction. If a reader really wants to look at African-American authors and doesn't have time for or want a readers' advisory interaction, we have a list. The list is divided into genres so horror readers can find the horror authors who also happen to be African American. For general fiction, we mark if the book is urban fiction or inspiration fiction, since a reader of one may not want to read the other.

After five years of not having a good answer to the question "where are your books on black history," I made shelf-talkers. Near clumps of history-ish books, I have signs directing people to other clumps of history-ish books, including 277, 302, 323, 370, 796, 810, 920, and 973. The sign also tells them what subject they should expect there (277--Christianity in North America). There is also a note about our special collection of African-American history in the South and our local history collection.

I also have self-talkers for other Dewey-problematic areas. Home decorating, parenting, fashion, business, and gardening.
Anonymous said…
We do this. I hate it. People would tell you customers ask for our "Black World" section all the time. That's because we've basically trained them to do so.

There are other problems with this too: as the population becomes more racially mixed where do people go? Hell, do Obama bios go in black world? So is half good enough? A quarter? Similar issues to the CSK author requirements by the way.

Also if I were say a Latino patron I would be wondering why the library can't be bothered to make me a section, although in this city they sadly wouldn't be surprised.
Anonymous said…
Some time back I stopped at a bookstore on Polk Street in San Francisco, looking for a Joseph Hansen mystery. At the time, his Dave Brandstetter mysteries were popular. I finally checked at the counter and found out that the store had his work in the Gay section. These were popular mainstream mystery stories, that the protagonist was gay didn't matter. Had I been looking for a book about being gay, these mysteries would not have been helpful. Books outside of the Gay section were not shelved in Heterosexual sections. This might get worse before it gets better; I'm seeing Christian Mysteries, and Urban Fiction, and I'm not sure what other categories are coming.

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