Sunday, March 18, 2012

Descendants of Excellence

I have to giggle, because what I'm about to say makes me feel old as dirt. Last week I read the best book I have read this century: They Tell Me of a Home by Daniel Black. The storyline wasn't what made this book great. Of course it was interesting, but there was so much more to this book than just a story. This book was a piece of LITERATURE. It was what Sojourner Truth died for us to be able to do. It was what Alice Walker was paving the way for. I'm sure Ralph Ellison smiled down on this book once it was published. The plot and setting created a movie in the mind of the reader. A person was able to feel, think, smell, and see exactly what was going on in this little town. Rather than making the reader think his or her friend was just telling one long story, They Tell Me of a Home engaged the reader in a series of events. The book sparked the desire to change. It made the question "Why?" be asked over and over again. This is what real literature is made of. It saddens me that more books written in modern times don't possess this quality.

Having only one book published, I'm still learning, still growing, and still developing myself as a writer. However, I've been reading since the '80's. I know what makes a book good and what makes a book excellent. I'm not trying to be mean or slander the reputations of anyone who has published a book. I just want us to put more effort into our quality. Daniel Black did just that. There are other authors, however, who don't, and it's disheartening. The English language has been butchered. The books read like the transcript of a "Girllll, lemme tell you..." telephone conversation between two girlfriends. Getting lost in them doesn't happen as often as the need to the end of them. It's sad. Their subject matter sounds like something we can relate to. Then in the midst of all the label dropping, bad spelling, misuse of homophones, and inconsistency in story, the audience loses interest. Once upon a time, those who were gifted in writing wrote. In present time, anyone who seeks a quick come-up puts a book out. No matter how mediocre the quality, they put it out. If the person is popular enough the book sells. Those whose hearts and souls are in this, who are doing this for the love and not the fortune and fame, are left sitting on the proverbial shelves collecting dust.

What's really sad is when a person possesses talent but won't take the time to develop it. Paying for editing isn't even given a second thought. They have a good story but aren't grammatically gifted. The good story is ruined by events that are inconsistent with the time period in which their books are set. They don't know the difference between "want" and "won't." At the beginning of the sentence, Veronica is speaking, but somehow the tagline is marked with Dana's name. We authors love burning the midnight oil. Some of our best ideas come to us after one a.m. That doesn't mean we can send it to be published first thing in the morning. At the very least, we can get a second set of eyes to look at it and make sure all of our ducks are in a row.

They Tell Me of a Home really made me feel bad about not majoring in English in college. I felt like the main character's craft was so polished. Formal training seemed to take his talent and turn it into something brilliant. I was left wondering if my writing was lacking something because it was never sharpened with an English degree. My professors in college always read my writing and told me I was in the wrong field. Even though I held a 4.0 GPA, they could tell by the way my papers were written that my heart was in Language Arts. They were 100% correct, but writing doesn't pay the bills. Now I do it on the side, but I wonder what level my writing would be on today if I took it to a university and let them mold it. I guess it's too late for "what if's" now, but when I look at work I'm disappointed in I can't help but wonder what flaws are in mine.

As African-American writers, we are the descendants of excellence. Booker T. Washington, Mildred D. Taylor, Sojourner Truth, Ralph Ellison, and the like did not pave the way for us to produce mediocrity. I know we say, "It's just a word; stop being so anal," but there's more to it than that. We want to get our people back into reading. By writing about things that our people see in everyday life we are doing just that. Then we speak of things our people dream of seeing. But we spend so much time promoting the names of designers who could care less about us, not paying attention to detail, and trying to make every character a superstar that we forget what writing is supposed to do: change lives. We need to go back to memorable characters like Miss Celie, Cassie Logan, T.L., etc., who were able to make an impact on our hearts and minds. We put out poorly formatted books, and it's insulting to the readers who have spent their hard-earned money on supporting our efforts. We say, "Who cares if I used the wrong form of 'their'? It's urban fiction, not a college essay." What we're really saying is we don't give a crap about those who fought for us to be educated and those who fought for us to be able to legally know how to read and write. Forget all of those who are learning from us. All they need is a book. They don't need it to be great. None of this is true. We are the descendants of excellence. We should be standing on the foundation that was given to us and building toward the next level. Let's do better.

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