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The Politics of Street Lit

Practical Politics

David L. Horne, PH.D. | 10/24/2013, midnight

Since the creation of Black American (African American) culture, every generation of Black folks in the U.S. has produced its own creative literature, music, dance, etc. That is because part of the consistent core and character of Black culture is its continuing liveliness, quest to “tell the truth about what it is” and its ability to “snatch whatever good got left in the shadows and corners of life.”

For the millennial generation (post-1990s), in music, it is still quintessentially Hip Hop variations of Rhythm and Blues, Gospel and Neo-Soul. For literature, it is street lit, urban literature, aka, ghetto or gangster lit. For some, this is just Hip Hop in written form, taking the urban ballads from the music stage to the written page.

Street lit chronicles the city’s Black underbelly; the gritty, sexually explicit, vulgarizing set of stories in the everyday lives of some African Americans. There are now literally thousands of extant street lit authors, some regularly raking in six figures and more. In fact, recent financial figures show that street lit sales often far exceed those of classic works by Black and White writers.

Street lit authors frequently start out as self-published writers, with all of the attendant problems of such—bad editing and booksmanship. But because of the advantage of the Internet, and the effective use of door-to-door, party-to-party sales, a lot of books get bought. Regularly selling for $10 to $15 (the regular paperback novels in bookstores sell for $23.99 or so), the books have proven to be such money makers that major publishers have started recruiting promising writers.

Treasure E. Blue, for instance, reportedly sold more than 65,000 copies of her first novel before signing a really big contract with Random House; and Terri Woods is said to have sold more than 300,000 of her self-published first novel, “True to the Game,” before signing with a major publisher.

The origins of street lit go far back into literature. In fact, every culture generally produces writers who explore the grittiness of urban life during his/her time. Charles Dickens did it in 1838 with “Oliver Twist,” Stephen Crane (in 1893) with “Maggie, Girl of the Streets” and the list is endless. However, generally the successful authors among them did more African American street lit, however, stays true to its own origins and foundation.

It is always about the small and large dramas of low-down, dirty, and sometimes soaring, street life. Iceberg Slim (inmate Robert Beck) with “Pimp,” and 14 other similar books; Donald Goines in that same vein, and Claude Browne’s “Manchild in the Promised Land” of the 1960’s started the street lit trend in Black writing, and during the 1990’s the genre was renaissanced by Sister Souljah (“The Coldest Winter Ever”), Omar Tyree (“Flyy Girl”) and Terri Woods (“True to the Game”). Today the long list of authors includes Zane, Ebony, Miasha, relentless Aaron, K’wan Foye, Meesha Mink, and De’Nesha Diamond, the husband-wife team of Ashley and JaQuaris Coleman, Anna J., Thomas Long, Andrea Blackstone, Wahida Clark, Debra Clayton and Chunichi, among others. As mentioned above, they now number in the thousands. However, there is yet not one Toni Morrison, Alice Walker or Toni Cade Bambara among them, although many have won literary awards.