Sunday, February 20, 2011

Black History Month Heroes: Jamal Wallace from "Finding Forrester"

The great books. The fine arts. Classical music. What do these three things have in common?

Jamal does sound more like a basketball players name...
If you have know anything about ghetto fiction, you probably know where this is going. The contributions of Black writers to literature have all centered around one predominate theme: racial angst. Rare is the Black writer who can climb out of this hole dug by the Black writers who came before them. Thus the plight of Black writers.

This fact is so well-known that Wal-Mart helps out would-be book buyers by segregating its selection of available tomes by race, so customers immediately understand the value of their potential purchase. In the coming years, colleges -- due to budgetary concerns -- will be forced to remove Black Studies from their course offerings.


Because so few new books of merit have been penned that help students grasp the plight of 21st Black people. Discrimination once existed in America toward Blacks, but that has since been alleviated with the real discrimination pointed directly at white students.

The books of the past, penned by Black people, all center around the theme of overcoming racial discrimination. The Black books written now all center around a "thugnicity" mindset, which is reflected in how Black people act.

One simple way of understanding the plight of Black writers is the lack of Hollywood interest in buying the rights to Black books -- save Precious -- and turning them into movies:
Films about the lives of famous black Americans are far more plentiful - in part because they’re comparatively easier to produce. Even when made with artistry and ideas, as Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X’’ and Michael Mann’s “Ali’’ were, a biopic tends to rely on a well-established formula that accommodates almost any life, with all due respect to the achievements of the person who lived it. It’s relatively easy to get an audience to see a film about an important leader or beloved entertainer. The commercial prospects of “Ray’’ are much more promising than a work of science fiction taken from Octavia E. Butler’s “Parable of the Sower.’’
 One Black writer has dubbed the attitude of book publishers as "Seg-BOOK-gation" because so few Black writers are deemed marketable to an audience that is overwhelming white:
You may or may not be familiar with African American Author Bernice Mcfadden, whose 2000 debut novel, SUGAR, was highly praised by critics nationwide. 
Recently she shared with DrumTide her perspective on “Seg-Book-Gation.” 
 I recently read an article you had written on the disappearing breed of African American writers of literary fiction, in which you coined the phrase “Seg-Book-Gation”. Could you please comment on the subject, and what led you to discover that Publishers are putting AA writers in this “wrestling ring” to compete for only African American audiences? 
Publishers have turned literature written by African American writers into a genre which they have labeled African American Fiction – even if that fiction has nothing to do with the African-American experience. And in doing so they have alienated readers because that label sends the message: THIS IS NOT FOR YOU – to people who are not African American. This coupled with the practice of not marketing AA writers to a wider, “whiter” audience affects the numbers of books we sell – this translates into poor sales figures. But instead of publishing taking responsibility for this phenomenon, they point the blame on the community, accusing them of not reading or only reading one type of genre – in this case that genre would be the street lit and urban erotica. The illusion that African American readers only want to read one type of book and non-African American readers are not interested in reading literature written by people of color has levied a devastating and crippling blow to those of us who write literary fiction as well as contemporary commercial fiction. Many of us have found ourselves unable to obtain new book deals and some of us have even had our contracts canceled. 
Do you feel that generally the Black audience is only interested in books based on drugs, sex, and street lit, as the publishers suggest? 
Of course not. It’s just another racist stereotype.
The statistics on illiteracy and Black people's indifference to literature would ostensibly scare away publishers who realize the futile economic gain in publishing a book targeted to Black readers of fiction, though the positive capital and publicity generated by publishing a fledgling Black writer might outweigh the monetary risk. Reading Rainbow was just a creation of brilliant marketers.

Sadly few Black writers of merit can be located that don't persist in writing on that go-to theme of racial angst (it should be stated here that in the little spare time SBPDL has, a work of fiction is underway and also the creation of a Black villain for a graphic novel that progressive comic writers feel threatened to actually pen).

Well, the racial angst theme or the putrid waters of thug fiction. Black writers, having gone to the well of racial angst one to many times in fiction have found a collectivist mentality of "us" versus "them" (them being the white publishing industry) is necessary to survive:
But in the age of President Obama, when successful black writers can be found across genres and a Nobel Prizewinner, Toni Morrison, can be tapped to be the honorary chairwoman of the event, do black writers still need a conference to call their own?
In interviews, many black writers and editors, and others in the book world said yes. Black authors are part of the broader society’s struggles with the legacy of discrimination and exclusion, they said, and often need a more strategic approach to getting their work promoted, reviewed and sold.The conference, expected to attract 2,000 people, is a chance for writers to study and celebrate one another and for readers to hear writers presenting their work and dissecting social and literary themes. Over four days of workshops and discussions, the participants can also grapple with issues like the value of black sections in bookstores, the paucity of black editors in publishing and how to expand the list of black writers taught in schools. 
“Is a black writers’ conference still necessary? Absolutely,” said Mr. Mosley, an author of dozens of books of all kinds who has since retired the best-selling Rawlins series. “Black writers are still facing all kinds of questions about the world they live in and the battle they’re up against,” he said. “This is a chance for us to pay attention to each other and not take on the values of the broader society.”
Bibliophiles everywhere want to see the next great work of Black fiction, but don't hold their breath in the process. One of the recent, shining examples of Black fiction is Push -- the movie Precious -- which paints a vivid portrait of Black underclass life that the more than 75 percent of Black children born out-of-wedlock can look forward to (if they can't play sports):
Set in Harlem in 1987, "Precious" is a disturbing portrayal of an undereducated and obese sixteen year old growing up in a highly dysfunctional environment. The title character lives a diminished existence. She is consistently molested by her father and beaten and degraded by her mother.
So yes, Black writers don't have an audience. The lone place a promising Black writer has been seen is, you guessed it, the movies. Remember Finding Forrester?
Finding Forrester is a 2000 American drama film written by Mike Rich and directed by Gus Van Sant. A black American teenager, Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown), is invited into a prestigious private high school. By chance, Jamal befriends a reclusive writer, William Forrester (Sean Connery), through whom he refines his natural talent for writing and comes to terms with his identity.. 
The film opens with 16-year-old Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown) sleeping in his bedroom, which is stacked with books, and then jumping up to go meet his friends on the basketball court. The friends begin to discuss a recluse, William Forrester (Sean Connery), who lives on the top floor of the building across from the schoolyard, and they regularly notice him watching them from his window, although they never see his face. One day after school, one of the boys challenges Jamal to sneak into the apartment. Jamal accepts the challenge and sneaks in through the window, but is surprised by the recluse and flees, leaving his backpack. 
Later, Jamal confronts the man who occasionally delivers supplies to the recluse and displays his gifted intellect discussing the man's BMW car. After the man leaves, Jamal's backpack is dropped to the street. Jamal finds the man read his journals and made editorial notes in it. Jamal returns to the apartment and requests the man read more of his writings, but is told to begin with 5000 words on why Jamal should "stay the fuck out of his home," which Jamal promptly completes. 
At school, Jamal has just completed state required testing where it is revealed that he is an intellectually gifted student, which he has hidden from others by performing just average in his schoolwork.

It is a well-known fact that all Black students - like Jamal - purposely under-perform in school so as not to appear "Acting White" thus opening themselves to beatings from fellow Black students. It is funny to know that everyone understands that the racial gap in learning is permanent, which is why Atlanta Public Schools incredible gains in the CRCT test registered as bull-sh** immediately.

Black Fictional Month Heroes includes Jamal Wallace, a promising Black writer who feared that his intellectual gifts would forever impede his acceptance by the Black community that is disinclined to accept such sagacity.

Finding Forrester is but a movie, but having a fictional Black writer as the protagonist was a monumental disservice to those Black writers languishing in the sordid alleys of Thug Fiction everywhere.

As Sean Connery said, though:
Forrester: You're the man now, dog! 


Hirsch said...

Seg-book-gation? Somewhere in Vegas, if Carrot Top is reading this, even he is in awe of the cornpone factor on display.

It's obvious the Sean Connery character is modeled after Salinger, but it is impossible to imagine J.D. making himself this available to anyone, let alone the kid in the movie. An autographed copy of "Catcher in the Rye," fetches about $65,000 on today's market.

Van Sant did a triple axle over the shark after he made "Drugstore Cowboy" with Matt Dillon.

Market forces dictate that the black masses (those who read) want this thug lit and an occasional King James Bible. This stuff is nothing new. In the seventies there was Donald Goines, who wrote "Daddy Cool" and "Mama Black Widow." And before him there was Iceberg Slim, of "Pimp" fame. These books were primarily sold in black barbershops and were sort of afro-american version of the Black Mask imprint.

As for Mosley and Butler or Morrison, they're like Alice Walker in that these are books by black authors primarily written for white audiences. To Mosley's credit, he can write about subjects other than being black black bliggity black y'all. Still, Gary Phillips is a better black writer.

Bernice McFadden said...


Anonymous said...

I actually paid money and saw "Finding Forrester" in a movie theater on opening night.

It was slightly less realistic than "Mars Attacks".

Desiree said...

I find this increasingly hilarious, these entries, SBPDL.

Now, black people can't read, let alone write a ghetto story without being skewered by some far-right yahoo?

Here's the deal: black people read. I will be the first to admit I am not grabbed by fiction, but non-fiction. Always have been; I remembering reading 'Female Chauvinist Pigs' in a few hours and I have a stack of dog-eared Ann Coulter on the shelf. But my mother was called 'storybook girl' because she always had her nose in a novel.

Our shelves in the house are filled to the bursting point with black writers (and whites, too, of course), her favorites being Alice Walker and James Baldwin.

SBPDL, black people love a ghetto story; one of my friend's faves is something by Snoop Dogg. Even if they are middle class. Who cares? What is literature anyway? I love Stephen King but he's raked over the coals by the Literary Intelligentsia. Sure, when compared to Shakespeare, he looks like he's writing in crayon and feces but he's not bad, definitely not worthy of derision.

Why are you such a HATER? Most writers die without publishing anything even though they've written tomes! The black kid, Jamal, is not really that 'unusual' if most of us never know about writers even existing.

You sound like those Christian yahoos bashing Ms Rowling for Harry Potter. If ghetto lit--like 'Push'--gets people reading, who cares? ('Push' is a good book.)

To the 'Kosher One':

they're like Alice Walker in that these are books by black authors primarily written for white audiences.

I resent your suggestion that Alice Walker's pieces are for white people. Get real, boyfriend!! Her pieces are no more written for white people than they are written for dirty, rotten, stinking men. That's kind of like saying rap is for white people just because they make up the majority of its consumers. White interest, of course, influences market trends but it's still black.

Shit, Ms Walker would punch you on the nose if she heard you say that about her. So would Ms Morrison, although she did say Clinton was the first black prez--she must have been drinking. Read 'The Bluest Eye', her debut; if whitey likes that, there is no hope for the kind of people who come onto SBPDL!

You are such a stereotyping tool. And, you know what, Hirsch? If black people read the KJV Bible, they are reading great literature. Only Shakespeare comes close, and rumor has it that he helped write that translation!

Anonymous said...


"Market forces dictate" and "books by black authors primarily written for white audiences".

Because (insert supernatural being of choice here) forbid black folks be anything but manipulated child-like creatures so straitjacketed in the abject misery of their blackness that there is no room for anything else!

Anonymous said...

Chris Rock touched on this in the famous "i love black people" joke

Wanna save your money? Hide it in your books cos ....... dont read. Books are like Kryptonite to a ......

Anonymous said...

"I find this increasingly hilarious, these entries, SBPDL."

Yes, we know. You say this over and over and over...

Miss Ann said...

"Shit, Ms Walker would punch you on the nose if she heard you say that about her. So would Ms Morrison"

Of COURSE they would resort to violence.

Can't escape that TNB! It dun beez in da jeens.

Anonymous said...

Desiree claims she "beez bubblin' ova wit natch'ul talen' an' sheeit, but her (fiction hating) self thinks Stephen King is a "not bad" writer. Not bad? He's a god-awful writer. A good storyteller, granted, but King is one of the worst writers ever. I'd rather read JT LeRoy! (I'd write bad crap for his money though.) Desiree, you have shit-for-taste, which explains why you think you have talent.

As to the SBPDL post: "Run, Forrester, run!!!"

Anonymous said...

Alice Walker might try to lure Desiree into her bed, and turn her into an authentically black lesbian. But even the formidable Alice couldn't teach Desiree how to write.

Anonymous said...

Disarray said:
"I find this increasingly hilarious, these entries, SBPDL."

Shakespeare would be jealous of such touching prose. Look, she writes the same way that uneducated people speak!

I find this increasingly demented, these comments, Disarray.

Desiree said...

The contributions of Black writers to literature have all centered around one predominate theme: racial angst. Rare is the Black writer who can climb out of this hole dug by the Black writers who came before them.

I have wondered about this...

I like to consider myself a (non-professional) black writer (or a writer who happens to be black) but I have wondered what to write about.

If we use Hirsch's logic, if I write about things that happen in my life, like a black Todd Solondz film-in-book-form, he would say I'm writing for white people and that I am not being 'authentically black' and that I'm sweating nervously in my Argyle sweater and I have a bruise around my neck from the heavy Africa pendant.

But why would I want to write about racial angst? Maybe if I wrote a period piece I could talk about black struggle but I wouldn't want to have to rely on a history book!

And why would I want to write about the occasions I was followed in a store or mistreated by whites? That's depressing!

I couldn't write something like Precious, either.

There's a lot of imagination to that goes into it, of course, and in that case, I guess I could write about a 13-year-old black prostitute, but you wonder if someone will think of you as trying too hard, being black and (once again) writing about sorrows...

See, I truly believe what is dictated as 'black' is not so much by blacks but by whites. If they want 'black', they will not get Gabrielle Union, but they will get Regina King, even though both are equally black (white folks don't get this). (I will say, though, Janet Jackson in 'Poetic Justice' was just ridiculous; everyone with knowledge of the Jackson family knows they are a bunch of self-hating, anti-black racists!)

And if a black writes with white characters, for example, what would the masses make of it? Apparently, the only consumers that matter are the 'white ones', as Disney's 'Princess and the Frog' proved. I know it wasn't a very big thing when Stephanie Meyer pretty much stated that the world in her Twilight books was colorless...

It is stupid to assume there are no black writers. They are all unpublished! They don't know what the hell to do! So-called 'Thug lit'...I ain't writing that, even if there is a market for it, although people can gobble it up if they damned well please.

But I would write about something like in a Solondz film...

By the way, I think we should take into account that the milieux of many blacks is dogged with racism and sadness. Maybe several orders of magnitude less for some of us, but I can see why people would still want to write--and read--about it.

Have you read some 'thug lit', SBPDL? Cain't knock it til you try it, kid... I am actually surprised you even care; shouldn't you be angrier if all of a sudden blacks all over the country in all different socio-economic statuses began to read great literature--black and white--and started churning out writers? Especially ones writing social criticism in symbolic, allegorical form?

Thug lit? I'd think you'd be happy that was popular. Go figure.

Harold "Harry" White said...

The purpose of keeping those books in a separate African American section is to allow black authors to gain greater exposure to black customers. There's nothing wrong with opening African-American authors and their books to the wide world of mainstream literature in bookstores. It would be more competitive but competition made America strong. However, with that comes a few problems in BRA:

1. With a wider audience to appeal to, the book should (and will) be expected to do bigger numbers. However, many books with black themes won't sell on their own because race is subject that people don't feel like dealing with in general. What makes people think that it would be any different in leisurely activities?
2. If mainstream audiences don't check out the books as expected, marketing and/or poor literary skills will not be blamed for its failure. Racism or lack of diversity of the audience will be blamed.
3. The drawback of integrating black literature into mainstream literature is the fact that it would dilute black literature if others has access to post the same thing. Then again, in BRA, black folks want access to everything but will ensure that no one gets access to anything relating to them.

There is a reason that Tyler Perry movies only show in limited screenings instead of ALL movie theaters. Despite the money he makes now with his limited theater screenings, there would be monetary losses if Madea/Any-Tyler-Perry-circle-jerk film showed everywhere. What may be good for Black America isn't exactly good for White America. I'm certain that Madea wouldn't sell out in Salt Lake City, Boise or any other area that has 5% or less blacks in the metro area.

On the other hand, you would have some black writers that would write with the intention of appealing to all audiences. However, in our Soviet Blacktopia, acting white, writing write, looking white or anything related to "white" is frowned upon. Those same black authors would be called "sell outs" and accused of denying their black culture. Thus black authors are literally kept in check not by whites but by themselves.

Take out the Black section and they'd get mad. Keep the Black section and they're still mad.

Anonymous said...

"The film opens with 16-year-old Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown) sleeping in his bedroom, which is stacked with books,"

LOL my suspension of disbelief failed right there!

Chris Rock said something to the effect that books are like Kryptonite to blacks -- if you want to hide something from a black, hide it in a book.

Anonymous said...

I love this site, I appreciate an honest opinion from a white person especially when it is not filled with the n-word or overtures toward emotion. I agree with most of the post's contents but as a black man I don't feel I should be judged with a group I have culturally disassociated myself from. I myself am disgusted by the current dominant culture within the black community and wish to see that culture exposed for the harmful effects it has on all communities it comes in contact with. Since human nature roots for the underdog and many people want to see black people come from behind and do well including myself but the mistake is in the thinking that some how blacks would be more benevolent rulers due to their history of slavery and poverty. This is false and it is actually whites who are more evolved and currently kinder than blacks evidenced by their humanitarian efforts throughout the world and their daily conduct and attitudes towards black people while the blacks act arrogant in public for no reason at all. Like the lion and the mouse, who knows black people may one day be able to repay you in kindness, I personally as of last few years have come to really admire white people surprising since I once almost joined the Nation of Islam. I realize now that my interest in Black militancy was misguided and I hated the foolishness of black culture then but mistakenly thought it was the result of black enslavement but I believe now that black problems are self inflicted. I used to think black history was a positive but I now think it is negative. I used to be a serious student of black history but now I don’t even want to see the Black History shows at the school I teach at , all they talk about is past racism which is over while every year there are emerging white and Asian billionaires (i.e. Zuckerberg) while we talk about tired history that alienates people with money and power. When blacks tried to act white it was probably better because they were trying to get smart and get good jobs but this culture is in full retrograde right now and I am disgusted.
Almost all of my experiences with white people have been positive (99.5%) from doctors (and believe it or not black people )to even policemen who I now advocate for and defend every time I get a chance. I was wrong for blaming white people for any shortcoming in black society and I apologize to white people for that. I believe that Africans could have avoided slavery by educating each other instead of fighting each other as they do today because they will not practice discipline as a group. Slavery has been around before white people and is around right now in Africa. If not for white people and the invention of financial instruments that eliminated the need for forced slavery the primitive practice would be more widespread in Africa today. My view of reparations-This country is filled with educational institutions and libraries with books on science and technology but when I go to the library too many blacks are checking out “Soul Plane” or playing rap videos on the computer or worse making noise and hanging out disturbing me. But despite this I actually care that black people improve because my son and daughter are “black” and they will have to live with being that color but I hate the way the majority of black people think too but I am here and I have an expert chess rating and a master’s degree in math, I am polite and hold the door for people (all colors) when they come into a store, my children are complimented for their manners and make straight A’s and I see them making vital contributions to the country. I have black skin but I can’t stand this ignorant culture either, and I just want to live in peace in this greatest country of America. Don’t lump me in with fools because of my color.
Man with dark brown skin

Anonymous said...

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