Monday, February 18, 2008

Street Lit As Lit

Daughter Jasmyne was part of the Black Bloggers' Roundtable on NPR's News and Notes today. After a lengthy discussion on the drama engendered by Barack Obama's decision not to appear at the State of the Black Union Forum, they did land on a topic that I consider to matter more: the state of literacy in the African-American community.

The discussion centered around the genre of "urban literature" called Street Lit.

There was a fair amount of complaint about the genre's content: vulgar language, misogyny, and graphically violent and repulsive content.

Still, two of the three bloggers summed up their sentiments with the concept that it is a good thing that Black people are reading anything at all and, if Street Lit accomplishes that, a good thing has occured.

It might be good to view literature, true literature, as art. And, as art, its aesthetic content has to be at least as important as our access to it. It's ability to inform ,with symbolic information, a particular worldview invested in it by the creative artist.

As an educator and as a former artist, I have spent a great deal of time with people who have learned the mechanical aspects of reading but are nonetheless functionally illiterate. Because literacy involves a deeper understanding of the material. Literature, whatever it's setting, is supposed to reveal something to us about an aspect of the human condition, our nature. An essay is supposed to take a localized event or observation and show us how it symbolizes something more universal. If this is true the literature would find a universal appeal. An appeal that crosses generations, national boundaries; an appeal that crosses racial, ethnic, and economic lines.

How do we want to divide up the arbitrary classifications we give to literature. In my college African-American literature courses, I certainly read material that would be considered Street Lit by modern standards. Books like Manchild in the Promised Land and Iceberg Slim's Trick Baby.

Of course, I read them among a wider range of literature, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Richard Wright's Native Son, Langston Hughes/Countee Cullen/Claude McKay, and Douglas Turner Ward's Day of Absence.

None of which would pass the litmus test for Street lit, I think.

So my point is simply that if all you read are books that express a vision of life that's futile, vulgar, violent, and often hopeless on the grandest level, whether you can read or not, what is your worldview likely to be? What are you likely to contribute to the world you live in? Or even understand about it outside the small world depicted in street lit?

I myself was born in Compton, which certainly wasn't a hotbed of expposure to astronomy, physics, and computers. My fascination with that world came from literature and non-fictioin that I read as a child. Would I have become a science lecturer or a teacher, or an engineer, or any of the things I've been able to do right up to writing this blog, if my parents had been satuisfied that I could read at all because I was an afficiado of street lit novels? Or would I simply be the most articulate-yet-non-introspective-pimp in the Mid-Cities area of Los Angeles?

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