Hustling Books: Black Independent Publishing in Street Lit

Hustling Books: Black Independent Publishing in Street Lit

At the precipice of the twenty-first century, Black people experienced a surge in leisure reading that led to re-articulations of Black club women and reading sister circles. As African Americans turned to popular culture spaces like Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club list and national Black Book Expos, Essence Magazine created an intentional feedback loop through their monthly Best Sellers’ Lists. Essence based their list on sells data reported from independently owned Black bookstores across the United States, thereby providing comparative data on what Black people elected to read for leisure and capturing the myriad ways Black authors created and disseminated their work. Considering technological advances in home computing and micropublishing, Black authors were able to creatively reject gatekeeping measures that have historically precluded Black urban narratives in the American mainstream book marketplace by independently publishing and distributing novels in the 1990s and early 2000s.

In this presentation, I presented aspects of The Essence Book Project–a digital humanities initiative that digitized the entire run of the Essence Best Sellers’ List for Fiction (which ran from 1994-2010)–to consider how street lit (contemporary African American urban fiction at the turn of the twenty-first century) authors like Omar Tyree and Teri Woods helped creatively redefine the African American urban literary tradition and made significant innovations to how books are created, bound, and sold. During the peak period of street lit, 1990-2007, Essence helped prove the existence of a robust African American reading public and supported the efforts of Black authors who strove to carve out space that articulated the changing demands of blackness and urbanity at the turn of a new millennium by packaging and selling candid fictive narratives about negotiating urban space. Street Lit novels and the Essence Best Sellers’ List, as a rich intra-cultural data source, fought to redefine what blackness and urbanity means while building creative solutions to systemic racist practices.

A PRESENTATION GIVEN AT THE AMERICAN STUDIES ASSOCIATION CONFERENCE 2019

css.php