Decidedly Black and Decidedly for Women: The Reading Blackness Project
As a researcher of contemporary African American urban and popular literature, there are few archives to support my work. This dearth has required a reimagining of traditional humanities research sources and a bit of technology. The “Reading Blackness Project” takes a digital humanities approach to understanding the culture that created and supported Street Lit* at the turn of the twenty-first century. After discovering a considerable discrepancy between best-selling African American literature from 1990-2010 and the most celebrated literature of the same period, I digitized the fiction bestsellers list published in Essence magazine from 1994 through 2010. I chose Essence magazine for its commitment to Black women and its best sellers list because it was generated from sales information reported from independently owned Black book stores across the United States. The list was decidedly Black and decidedly for women.
I used the Essence Best Sellers list to help validate the following argument: Street Lit, despite controversy of appropriateness, was the economic backbone of African American literature at the turn of the new millennium. The purpose was to put authors like Sister Souljah and her debut novel, The Coldest Winter Ever in conversation with widely lauded authors like Toni Morrison as a personal act of resistance to the boundaries that keep “canonical” African American literature separate from the inconvenient stories of urban peril in Street Lit.
The method of data collection Essence magazine employed was paramount to my interrogation of Street Lit texts because most genre texts were initially independently published and sold, which would preclude them from mainstream sales records taken from major clearing houses, big box retailers, and other sales record keepers (like the New York Times Bestsellers List). Essence magazine was able to preserve the story of contemporary Black independent print culture through quantitative data reports.
Using software that allowed me to disaggregate the list data helped guide what kinds of questions sit at the intersection of Blackness, womanhood, and reading. Specifically, the dataset revealed interesting narratives about how Street Lit books have been packaged and sold. Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever, for example, was the longest running title on the fiction paperback chart—appearing a total of thirty-six times or the equivalent of three years and was consecutively listed for twenty-nine months. The book retailed at 35% lower than the average fiction paperback on the list in 2000 (the year of its publication). The Coldest Winter Ever demonstrated that hardcover books with sticker prices of $20 and up were extremely hard to sell to a Street Lit and Hip-Hop demographic. Portable and cheap pulp books that averaged between $5 and $12 flew off the shelves of independent bookstores alternatively.
Sister Souljah’s success in Hip Hop music and dominance on the Essence list helped to rebuff then emerging notions of the female MCs needing to be oversexualized in lyrics and appearance or Black women authors needing to write solely about friendship, marriage, and God to be successful. She also helped push the boundaries and modes of cultural production Black women could enter after being successful in Hip Hop music by turning to books rather than acting or launching a fashion label. Furthermore, The Coldest Winter Ever helped to establish Hip Hop in print in a way that presented multifaceted Black women characters striving to navigate the Hip Hop cultural terrain.
As African American literature production progresses through the twenty-first century and technology improves, how African American literature and culture is preserved and interrogated will require innovative avenues to ensure that scholars are able to answer the questions that give credence to the fullness of Black women’s literature.
- Jacinta R. Saffold, PhD
* Street Lit is a contemporary popular African American literature genre that began in the early 1990s with the technological advances in home computing and personal printing as a creative response to the harsh realities of urban living in America and is a cultural cousin to Hip Hop.