Thursday, December 15, 2005

What Alligator? Ahem...Let me explain.


Back in elementary school Math, when we learned about greater than/less than/equal to, our teacher told us to think of the greater than/less than sign as the mouth of an alligator. She said, "Whichever number the alligator's mouth is opened for is greater than the number that's on the other side."

I remember immediately looking down at my skin and thinking, "Oh...so I was born on the wrong side of the alligator."

I was 5 years old when I first discovered that my skin color was a problem---that I was "less than". That in this country, the United States of America, it would be a lifetime burden. It was a horrible feeling.

It's not exactly a topic regularly discussed in polite conversation, but I've often wondered if other black people remember when they first found out. Let's face it, no one's born with that knowledge. I found out in Kindergarten when I was started in a predominantly white elementary school. I don't recall any specific incident of ill-treatment, but in the classroom environment, I immediately became aware that the white-skinned kids were treated better than those of us with colored-skin. Again, it was a horrible feeling.

So for years thereafter, that's how I saw myself. As being on the wrong side of the alligator that our teacher taught us about. Growing up in the 70's and 80's I can't say that I ever had to deal with any blatant racial discrimination.

That is, until I got into the publishing industry.

Boy, they sure know how to keep black authors on the wrong side of that alligator, don't they? If you're black, you can't possibly write anything that white readers---the "commercial" market as it were---would appreciate. If you're black, it's the automatic "for you, by you" treatment. Under these conditions, is it any wonder why the Times list is consistently dominated by white authors? Week after ever-loving week?

When one of us does manage to hit it, we'd better not get too damn comfortable. It's one week (maybe two if you're chasing Terry McMillan) and then you're gone. Left to be comforted by Essence, Karibu, and all the other "African-American" lists. Bottom line. If your work doesn't self-impose ethnic or cultural limits, why do publishers do so purely on the basis of the author's race; effectively cutting us out of a good 85, maybe 90% of the book-buying market?

Hey, Mr. Alligator? Where can we find an equals sign?

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