No matter what your reading pursuit or literary background, it will pretty much be agreed upon that one of literature’s first edict to writers was to entertain. This edict appears in all fictional literature and carries the almost explicit verdict of literary law, but no sooner than urban readers began that quest, they divided the realm of literary pursuits into two contrasting genres: Tradition urban lit and the more liberal street lit. Oddly enough, it was this fictional duality that set African-American readers upon their first literary turning point, and what evolved would forever alter the definition of what great reading was as well as how the experience was to be pursued. On the one hand, traditional urban lit sought to stimulate the senses of black readers by allowing characters to be the objects of their own individual growth and development, whereas street lit treated characters as the subject of an environment where educational growth and development was stunted. This was serious business indeed.
If, in our literary evolution, entertainment was the first serious connection between writer and reader, then great writing would be the unimpeachable evidence that we, as a collective of readers and writers, could produce a viable literary heritage . If it was the power to entertain that would ultimately keep us from degenerating to the level of an illiterate nation, then the power of great writing is what would separate us from being masters of our blossoming literary heritage or becoming slaves of it.
Both side of the coin, the traditionalists as well street lit artists have both sought to reform black readers via their senses. However both set forth the pretext that their way was not simply the right way, but the only way. What has ensued is the eternal question of black lit. What genre of writing satisfies our quest for reading entertainment best?
For me, I do not wholly believe that a reader’s fundamental literary outlook is changed because he/she gets entertained. What this does is basically to usher in the “sexual might makes right” syndrome which is part and parcel of a lot of traditional urban novels. In my mind, there remains some doubt, as to whether these “sexually proficient men and women” of traditional urban lit are heirs of anything entertaining other than the sexual “one-upmanship” that prevails in the work of the urban romance elite. No matter wherein one reads inside the realm of traditional urban lit, what you will find in the wake of such reading is a paint-by-number deadening of the soul where readers are literary voyeurs into the sexual antics of black America. Are male-bashing sistas any more entertaining than gun-toting thugs?
Street lit, on the other hand, is the extreme province of a cold-eyed pessimism where the tenets of dead, black men (i.e. Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines) are upheld in this “cult of personality” genre. I further contend that street lit, while propelled by innovative thought, is intellectually self-destructive.
Sadly, both genres have, at times, been an offensive policy against our inner nature. During the First Renaissance, the writings were designed for the sole purpose of self-preservation. The spirit of the work from that era was to educate, to foster cooperation rather than competition which is a basic need of an oppressed people. Street lit induces men to stare into the prism of the environment and then to draw up a blueprint to destroy the neighborhood. The work from the Harlem Renaissance forced readers to stare into the heavens and see that the stars spelled their names. The enduring novels of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Chester Himes, Zora Neale Hurston served to strengthen the core communication between reader and writer.
In conclusion, I argue most vehemently that we deserve a literary heritage that is life-affirming, works with intellectual import which is much better than the predatory writings of street lit or the gratuitous sensuality of urban romance. What both genres have done to such an amazing extent is that they have acted as an advertisement for our flawed existence, boldly giving a platform for the literary justification and legitimacy of bad writing on the one hand and sexual pandering on the other. What a sad pretext on which to sustain a literary heritage. And while great writing that both entertains and educates may not wholly satisfy our “off-the-chain” appetite for pillage and plunder or sexual mischief, it will make grant us the literary concessions we will need as a transport to carry into the next era of our writings.
There is nothing illusory about the plight of black folk in America, and sure literature is an escape, However, we must baptize our writings with the literary blood of all the great authors of our past and deal realistically with what is going on in our communities. Books must be a mirror into our souls as a people. What we read must be as real as the colors of the rainbow, or the alternation of day and night. It is the only way to go if we are to avoid intellectual Armageddon.
One final word. No other writers in the history of literature have used their talents in such a derogatory fashion. Look where you choose on the literary horizon and what you will find is that writers from other races have brandished their pens as a literary weapon to uplift the spirit of their people. It was Voltaire, a French writer, who paved the way for the French Revolution with his writings. Even in this country, it was the pen of the writers who first impressed upon the masses that they deserved change.
Where do we go from here?