I learned the term “code switching” in college. I was always aware of my own habit of speaking to strangers in one way and the homies in another way. It was the way I navigated the world, and a physical manifestation of my mom’s stern warnings, “there is a time and a place for everything”. Up until having had that particular conversation, with friends who had a similar habit, I didn’t know that there was a term for it. I just thought it was what we did.
When I say “we”, I mean all the kids who grew up in the city, any inner city. Children whose adolescent years are sound tracked by hip hop and whose friends had sometimes done “hoodrat things” right alongside them. Those whose childhood memories were sprinkled with a cycle of drugs and violence,with incidents that were often closer to home than one would have liked.
The same kids who then went on to good colleges, got good jobs, and assimilated into the middle class with ease. Often so smoothly that our new friends’ eyes widened when they find out that you are from the place they’ve only ever gotten acquainted with on the news. The people who still look forward to a new album from Rozay but love that new Coldplay. The middle.
Could it be possible that “the middle”, the code switchers, prefer their literature that way too? Could we enjoy Sista Souljah, Toni Morrison, Omar Tyree and W.E.B Dubois? Could a fan of James Baldwin recite the first few words, of Native Son and stay up all night reading Dutch by Teri Woods?
Clutch magazine contributor Britni Danielle authored a piece entitled What Happened to Black Literature where she airs her own concerns for the lost art of traditional black literature. In another Clutch article, Britney Wilson argues in the defense of the black intellectual reader – asking why media is compelled to dumb it down for black audiences.
‘If we think about media as a form of education and media creators as educators, we cannot simply continue to accept the myth that black readers are just anti-intellectual. Teachers do not (or at least should not) just feed students what they think they want to hear. They expose them to new information and, if necessary, help them to understand how and why the subject does relate to them. Readers, like students, may not initially know about or be interested in a topic. Unfortunately, they may never know if it is not presented to them.
In the same week, Madame Noire’s Charing Ball, countered with her own Op Ed piece It Might Not Be the Color Purple but There’s Nothing Wrong With Black Street Lit. Her question is simple, what’s so bad about “street lit”?
Storytelling is as old as writing itself. As such, there is no one “right” way to do it and no one person, or group, who can represent it. For years, we have read stories from more affluent (both financially and education-wise) contemporary black authors, who have written exclusively about the exploits of the affluent black middle class. While these stories are often better-versed, if we are truly honest, many of the themes, including sex, violence and drugs, we found in contemporary stories and are no different than what you are likely to find in many street lit novels. Moreover, for a very long time in black literature, the stories of the less affluent have been dominated by whose only connection to those people they wrote about was what they read in a newspaper or a sociology book in college. It was important for these writers to take control over their own stories. It’s one thing to read Push (aka “Precious”) from a social worker, looking from the outside and possibly from bias lenses, but it’s another to read a story written in the proper syntax, including poor grammar and spelling, from the sources themselves.
Both arguments are sound and in reading each of the three pieces I found myself in agreement with a lot of the notions. But I also found myself wondering about “the middle”. Could books like Helena Andrews’ Bitch is the New Black everbecome the new normal? Could there be room for a fictional character in contemporary black literature that code switches? Can a character be an intellectual, have a promising career, and date a drug dealer just because she likes bad boys? Would audiences be willing to read about the journey of someone who has seen the error of their ways and then turned their life around? Perhaps a novel which blends a street slang dialogue with a narrative of plain old King’s English?
Is there enough room on our shelves for those titles as well?
I sure hope so…