The Essence of Operating in the Black

The Essence of Operating in the Black

In 2001, the first Apple iPhone and Kindle (Amazon.com) e-book were released; marking a significant digital turn in the ways American literature is packaged, purchased, and consumed. The contemporary digital turn also straddles the turn of the twenty-first century—a time of heightened Black cultural production, which included the mainstreaming of Hip Hop through network television stations like MTV (the Music Television channel) and BET (the Black Entertainment Network); and Blockbuster films that featured mostly Black casts like the film adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Eddie Murphy’s Boomerang. This Black Digital Renaissance is notable for its ability to translate Black stories across artistic mediums. For example, Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale was successfully serialized across print, film, and music with the release of the box office hit of the same name starring Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett and the Grammy Award winning soundtrack written by Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds. Essence Magazine. The monthly Best Sellers’ List published in Essence was derived from sales data collected from independently owned Black bookstores nationwide which creatively and economically archives the rise of the contemporary Black Book Club Woman and how the Black Digital Renaissance coalesced around the purchasing power of the ‘Black dollar.’

Operating in the Black: A Computational Archive Derived From Essence’s Best Sellers’ List is a data driven digital archive that catalogues and computationally conceptualizes the economic might of Black books at the turn of the twenty-first century. Working from a database that pairs the entire Essence Best Sellers’ list for fiction from 1994 to 2010 with corresponding electronic versions of each title, Operating in the Black helps illuminate how robust Black reading communities helped ensure that Black culture remained ahead of the digital turn. Top rated fiction titles for 2001 provides a glimpse into how operating in Black cultural production spaces led to consecutive economic over-performance in the American culture marketplace. In 2001, the top fiction titles included novels that have been adapted for film and television (Addicted and Sex Chronicles by Zane, True to the Game by Teri Woods, and Nappily Ever After by Trisha R. Thomas) and public figures turned authors (rapper and community activist Sister Souljah, and radio personality Micheal Baisden). Stories that promoted Black love, provided blueprints for being a Christian in a secular world, and grappled with same sex loving and the ‘down low’ culture often began as Essence best selling novels and went on to have afterlives in radio, television, film, music, and fashion, making Black books a multi-billion dollar a year industry at the turn of the twenty-first century.

A PRESENTATION TO BE GIVEN AT THE COLLEGE LANGUAGE ASSOCIATION CONFERENCE 2020

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