Sunday, October 10, 2010

Equal Access under the Law

Several years ago a dear friend of mine posted the hypothetical question “Should there be a special section in bookstores and libraries for African American authors?"  Several days of debate ensued.  The final conclusion was “No” for both.  The reason for this, you ask?  Good question.
This isn’t a easy to explain as you might think, but here’s a synopsis.
The goal of all people is, in the end, to be treated just like everyone else.  This is true for writers a much as for anyone else.  In the end, what you are really saying when you demand special attention is that you’re not good enough to be seen if you’re mixed in with everyone else, so for you ‘treat me fairly is a code for ‘give me special attention and treat me better than everyone else because I can’t stand on my own merits.’  I agree with this, and I think I can speak with some small measure of authority on the subject.
I’m a writer.  Let me go on.  I’m of German Descent.  Further, I’m victim of a permanent medical disability.  Most of the time, that’s all fluff, so I’ll toss the ringer into the mix.  I’m a book critic.  I read and review books, mostly be writers the big house publishers haven’t discovered yet.  In this capacity I have reviewed several books by black writers.  I use that term specifically because frankly I’m closer chronologically o my German Immigrant heritage than any of these writers to their African heritage.  What we have in common, is we were all born Americans.
I said all that to say this.  I walked into a national book chain yesterday and noticed a new section.  Fiction by African Americans.  This section didn’t exist prior to the 2008 presidential election.  Prior to that, books by black writers were filed in alpha by author within the genre.  I took a quick perusal of the section.  Based in author bios I read, not one of the writers is any closer to their African roots than 200 or 300 years.  Most of them didn’t even mention them.  The book store chain made a decision based solely on race, and I suspect, politics,  to create a new section.
Conspicuous by their absence were the special sections for German American authors, Italian American authors, Iris American authors, Polish American authors Armenian American authors, and so on.  You get the picture.  That seems discriminatory to me. Special notice or privilege based exclusively on a writer’s  race is not even the spirit of the law, much less the letter.  It would be, under any other administration, illegal!
I’m reminded of something pertinent that happened when I was in high school.  The state in which I attended high school wanted to create a second set of criteria by which it would be easier for potential teachers of African American heritage to attain state certification to teach in public schools.  A tenured teacher from the aforementioned group protested.  She said, “You pass this law, and you are in fact saying that Black teachers are not smart enough to teach school in your state.  That we are so stupid that you have to make it easier to pass your test. That’s not what we want.  All we want is the chance to take the same test everyone else takes with the opportunity to compete on an even playing field for the same jobs.”
Writing is the same thing!  Creating a special section in a book store or library for ANY group is a bold statement that this group can’t compete on a level field with the rest of the pack.  And it’s discrimination against every other ethnic-American group who doesn’t also get a special section on your shelves.
And to my fellow writers of African heritage, I put your books on he same shelf because so far what I’ve read is just as good as everything else I’ve read.
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