Urban Fiction Books Helped Me Through My Black Childhood

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April is Black Women’s History Month.

Last month, author Omar Tyree announced that he would be publish an adapted scenario from his famous 1993 urban fiction book, flying girl. I started thinking about the impact this gender has had on my life and how it has shaped my view of the world as a black woman.

As Good reads explains, urban fiction is written primarily by black authors “and is as much defined by the socio-economic realities and culture of its characters as [the book’s] urban environment”, but I haven’t read these kinds of stories for a long time. My middle and high school years were filled with literature classes and required reading lists that all focused on titles written years before each of us were born. Our teachers planted in our heads the idea that these stories…Moby Dick, To Kill a Mockingbird, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, many of Shakespeare’s plays – were essential for doing well in school and for understanding literature, but other than the reading comprehension skills I picked up from those classics, I wasn’t very interested in the majority of them. (Apart The Iliad and The Odysseywho fed my totally justified obsession with Greek mythology).

I realize now that these stories did not interest me because I did not find myself in them. The characters didn’t share my life experiences, and they certainly didn’t look like me.

Of course, there are Black characters in Harper Lee’s Kill a mockingbird, but they don’t display much depth or have multi-faceted plots. Richard Yarborough, a professor and research associate at UCLA’s Center for African American Studies, said in a Los Angeles Times article that “black characters largely exist as tools to help white characters successfully test their ethics”. Black characters essentially act as martyrs and moral lessons for white characters, and frankly, most black characters in classic literature aren’t allowed to exist without enhancing humanity at the expense of their own dignity.

Then, in eighth grade, I saw a classmate of mine reading a book with a black girl on the cover, her features similar to mine.

Standing in front of what I assumed was a school, the mysterious girl on the book cover wore a pair of large dangling earrings and held a few books in her hand. I remember thinking that it definitely wasn’t on any reading list we were given in class.

It was called Jayd’s Legacy of L. Divine, book three of High drama series. Once I got my own copies, it took me just under two weeks to finish the whole series. I made it my mission to seek out more books like Divine’s, urban fiction books that explored the intricacies of being a black girl navigating city public schools. Divine’s series was filled with attitude, raw language, and most importantly, black characters I could relate to. Divine wasn’t afraid of her characters enduring real-life situations like dating, friendship fallout, consent, death, and sometimes violence – hence the show’s name. DRAMA High.

These topics had been completely absent – or unrealistically presented – in every other book I had read. Of course, I had spent hours reading The clique series and could probably recite the entire The Sisterhood of Travel Pantsbut I still felt like girls who looked, sounded and acted like me were missing from these contemporary young adult stories.

I kept looking for more urban fiction, and my search seemed to culminate when I found Sister Souljah’s book. award-winning novel, The coldest winter ever. Heavily influenced by hip hop and black culture, Winter Santiaga’s story unfolds in a way that is neither quiet nor coy in its depiction of sex, poverty and drugs.

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My 14 year old self was impressed.

By the time I finished reading the book, I wanted to get out of my suburban comfort zone with this new perspective on life. Santiaga’s adolescence and adolescence were in complete contrast to mine. Our parents were different, our friends were different, our ways of life were different. Yet I identified with his vulnerability and his desire for the finer things in life. She lives in Brooklyn, a place I hadn’t visited when I was a teenager. Experiencing the vibrant atmosphere of one of New York’s most diverse boroughs through the eyes of a character who wasn’t just a tourist visiting for the summer reinforced the importance of the genre to me.

The way Sister Souljah let readers into Santiaga’s exploration of her sexuality was foreign to me. I knew very little about sex when I was a preteen because my mom never officially “spoke” to me. Everything I had learned was through media portrayals and awkward conversations with my close friends. Sister Souljah’s book and others like her served as unfiltered encyclopedias, teaching me about aspects of my culture that I had never experienced firsthand.

But isn’t that what a good book is supposed to do: make you feel like you’re going through whatever the characters are going through? The granularity of writing in urban fiction literature is why the genre stands out from other works. Most of the time, the authors of these titles write from their own experiences in the city center or use their environment as a source of inspiration.

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Despite The coldest winter ever being popularly categorized as “street” or urban literature, Sister Souljah rejected the label. In 2011, she tells The root, “I think when European authors or Euro-American authors write about urban, suburban or rural areas, it’s just called literature. So I call my work literature, and anyone who reads my books knows it’s literature.

Yet Ashley Te’Arra, an Alabama-based urban fiction author and entertainment writer, said The coldest winter ever set the bar for the genre. “To this day, the genre of urban fiction is still somewhat frowned upon. Some won’t take you seriously in this industry, especially as a [woman],” she said. “However, Sister Souljah has broken down barriers, no doubt. The number of people who respect the creativity of urban writers, in my opinion, outweighs those who don’t.

A misconception of urban fiction that the author Tabitha Sharpe points out is that most people think there are specific themes that should be included in every book. “There is a stigma from readers… who say urban fiction and urban romance must have drugs, girl-next-doors, lots of sex, and can only be written in ebony,” or African American Vernacular English (AAVE), she says. But understanding AAVE is really no different from understanding Shakespeare’s use of “thou” and “thee”.

Although the characters in urban fiction novels don’t always talk like me or live in homes similar to mine, I’ve never denied the importance of their stories. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t personally understand every detail. But the same reasons I enjoyed reading urban fiction books are the same reasons they can intimidate people who are ignorant or unfamiliar with the culture.

“For some people, [urban fiction books] provide an escape from their daily lives,” Sharpe said. “It’s important because some books do their best to educate our people and other races about what’s going on in our communities. If nothing else, [these books are] educational, entertaining and inspiring.

Reading a book accented with slang, big earrings, and unique names felt like home.

Coming from a race that society has historically abused, ostracized and despised, I see the need for the urban fiction genre as anything but trivial. Representation should always be intersectional. It’s great to have female characters in books, TV shows, and movies, but when you’re from two minority groups, you’ll always want to see a fuller representation of yourself.

Urban fiction is the first place where I saw myself whole. When I read these books as a teenager, I didn’t have to choose which part of my identity I was going to read. A book in which the author controlled the narrative by also belonging to the community he was talking about was refreshing. The unapologetic work of urban fiction writers has helped me embrace the complexities of my culture.


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