Sistahood is Lucrative

The success of Terry McMillan has spawned a whole new breed of black, middle-class women novelists.

By Dwight Garner
Published September 23, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

there's a telling moment early in "Good Hair," Benilde Little's silky first novel, in which a young black woman stumbles into a glittery Manhattan cocktail party ("Sade crooned under a din of Buppies getting down") and observes that the guests aren't really enjoying themselves. They're too busy bludgeoning each other in a coy status game she calls "Negro Geography."

There are a million ways to play Negro Geography, as Little defines it. Most involve subtle interrogation: Where did you go to school? Who do you know? and What do you do for a living? In this suave crowd, nappy hair or particularly dark skin may drop you a rung on the class ladder, too. This kind of caste warfare is, of course, no stranger at white shindigs. But Little's point in "Good Hair" is that upper-middle-class blacks play the game with a special vengeance. They're seeking to distance themselves from the white world's notion of "ghetto" blacks, and to link themselves as closely as possible with what W.E.B. Du Bois once called the "Talented Tenth" -- that top slice of articulate, educated African-Americans who give the race its social boosts.

In today's black literary world, there's a version of Negro Geography being played, too. On one side stands Benilde Little and a new generation of brash, straight-talking young black female novelists. Taking their cue from Terry McMillan -- whose "Waiting to Exhale" has sold more than four million copies -- these writers steer clear of depictions of racism, slavery and social pathology. Their characters aren't victims. Instead they're interested, like the well-dressed Buppies at Little's fictional cocktail party, in the politics of Making It in America -- getting good jobs, good men and (with some help from their friendlier sisters) grabbing a taste of the sweet life. The soundtrack to their lives is provided by cool, urban chanteuses like Toni Braxton and witty, assertive female rappers like Salt 'N' Pepa, whose song "Big Shot" is virtually a syncopated pep rally for the aspiring black professional woman. Tracy Chapman? The grim stories she relates simply don't apply to these writer's lives -- she's warbling black blues for a largely white audience.

On the other side -- the Tracy Chapman side, to extend the musical analogy -- stand venerated writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Their books-- in the noble tradition of Zora Neale Hurston's classic "Their Eyes Were Watching God" -- are largely concerned with bearing witness to black struggle. These are writers who stare racism, rural poverty and slavery's lingering effects in the eye and refuse to blink. (An urban sibling to these books is Sapphire's bruising recent novel, "Push.") But while the best of their work -- Morrison's, anyway -- may stand alongside this century's most enduring literature, these writers don't exactly speak to the experience of contemporary, middle-class black life in America. Morrison may invoke the Song of Solomon, but it takes a different beat to capture the 9-to-5 world.
So here come Connie Briscoe, Bebe Moore Campbell, Tina McElroy Ansa and dozens of other young black writers at the forefront of a wave that writer Trey Ellis has termed the New Black Aesthetic. Their breezy, sexy novels don't feel like literature -- and that's the point. They aim squarely at the black middle-class readers who are turned off by the relentless high-mindedness of, say, Toni Morrison, and who want to see more of their own experience and aspirations reflected in the books they read.

Not unexpectedly, this so-called New Black Aesthetic has its detractors. Interviewed in The New Yorker, Albert Murray dissed Terry McMillan as "just Jackie Collins stuff." And in a recent issue of QBR, an African-American book review, publisher Max Rodriguez welcomed the increasing diversity but asked: "Where is the literature? Where are the seminal pieces that mark the passage of time in the life of a people? Where are the Langston Hugheses, the Ellisons, the Wrights, the Hurstons, and the Hansberrys?"

This kind of hand-wringing is entirely lost on the readers who are snapping up books by McMillan, Briscoe and Ansa by the armload. It's clear that these colloquial writers are touching a chord -- and tapping a heretofore neglected literary market. Not only is book-buying by blacks at an all-time high (about 160 million titles a year), but dozens of reading groups called "sista circles" have sprung up across the country. A company called Blackboard African-American Bestsellers, Inc. complies its own regular list of bestselling black books, and the banner "#1 Blackboard Bestseller" is now a common sight on paperback racks.

This fall's book catalogs are full-to-brimming with novels by young black female writers, few of whom are shy about acknowledging their debt to McMillan. (A common tag line on dust jackets these days is, "In the bestselling tradition of "Waiting to Exhale...") With their brightly-colored covers, these books look like McMillan's novels, too, spilling their rainbow-hued allure across the shelves. Although few can match her disarming sass, the best of them beat McMillan at her own game. The worst are... well, let's just say you won't wait to exhale.

The bulk of these books are very much about, in the Jamesian sense, How to Live. They brim with both moral guidance and -- perhaps more notably -- advice about annoyingly quotidian matters like make-up (keep it simple), men (99 percent of them are dogs), jewelry (understated is best) and corporate life (work twice as hard as everybody else). There is also a giddy element of class fantasy at work; many of these novels read like gonzo, urban Martha Stewart catalogs, product placements smuggled onto every page.

Thus we learn that Lena, the real estate agency owner protagonist of Tina McElroy Ansa's new novel "The Hand I Fan With," wears Versace and Mizrahi, drives a Mercedes 450 SLK, writes with Cartier pens and has a stable full of thoroughbreds. In Yolanda Joe's snappy "He Say, She Say," the young protagonist has a gorgeous apartment overlooking Lake Michigan and wears Anne Klein. And in Little's "Good Hair," a young female journalist (who cops to a $15,000 Visa debt) lives on Manhattan's tony West End Avenue, eats at Cafe Des Artistes and dates guys who invite her to Paris on the second date while sipping "1962 Lafite Rothschild at the Four Seasons." Here's a typical riff from "Good Hair":

I decided to commemorate my homecoming. I ordered a celebratory meal from Remi and put a bottle of Taittinger into the refrigerator. When he came home he found me in my orange-and-pink kimono, the table set with our best Italian dishes and linen from Portico, white beeswax candles in Nambe holders, and the Taittinger on ice.

I expected to find an 800 number at the bottom of the page, so I could order up a complete set. Political consciousness rarely intrudes on this conspicuous over-consumption, although Little takes a dig at Ralph Lauren, whose store stands "like the Confederate flag over East Seventy-second. Welcome to the world of tradition, to the past, when everything was simple, before Negroes had any rights."

The ultimate accouterment in these novels -- and by far the most difficult to acquire -- is a halfway decent man. Nearly all of these women have been burned more than once, and vow not to make the mistakes their parents made. In Yolanda Joe's "He Say, She Say," a woman asks her mother why she didn't flee her abusive husband. When the mother answers that she loved him too much to leave, her daughter is flabbergasted: "Ain't that powerful? I'm not loving anyone that hard, and I'm sure not taking any licks." Her one other rule? "Uncle Sam is the only man I give my money to."

Most of the women here are much too smart to be passive victims. Mostly they're pissed off that their men can't be faithful, or turn out to be gay or can't hold a decent job. As Yolanda Joe intones in "He Say, She Say," "the black woman is carrying our race and the brothers are hitchhiking." Yet these women are still undeniably attracted to the tough guys. Jill Nelson says it most succinctly in her recent memoir "Volunteer Slavery": "He's bad, therefore I am."

The heroines of these books have pretty much given up on dream men, but that doesn't mean they've stashed their libidos in the closet. Nearly all of them get plenty of what Yolando Joe likes to call "boot-knockin'," much of it wildly explicit. In Venise Berry's "So Good" -- easily the worst book here, it seems to be written entirely in the passive voice -- an advertising executive seduces her young male protégé on an office couch. In "He Say, She Say," when one friend tells another that she's met a potential lover, the friend promptly asks about the size of his manhood. "I mean, he was sitting there and every man I know sits with his legs cocked wide open, it would have been very easy to sneak a peek... Shoot, men check us out up and down, every whichaway. They stare at our breasts, our hips, our legs, our ass."

The shortage of men is so acutely felt that in one of these books, Tina McElroy Ansa's slightly goofy "The Hand I Fan With," the protagonist Lena (who has some Dionne Warwick-esque psychic abilities) holds a ceremony and conjures up a dream man, who beams down like an apparition from Star Trek. A good-hearted laborer named Herman who ostensibly "died" 100 years earlier, he possesses both "cheekbones like chiseled Georgia granite" and a raging sex drive. Lena knows he's a brother from another planet when he actually does some house-cleaning. But even kindly ghosts aren't entirely above suspicion. When Herman tells Lena he's got to return to the Great Beyond, her first frantic question is: "Is there somebody else?"

In one way or another, each of these young writers spins her own variation on Little's notion of Negro Geography. Their characters are either trying to float up a class, or desperately striving not to sink back down and expose their humble origins. "It wasn't as if middle-class Black people didn't want to be Black," Little observes in "Good Hair," "they just wanted to be seen as different from the negative stereotypes of the poor downtrodden so often shown by the majority media."

Little puts it this way: "Miles believed that Black women came in three categories: the commoner, the BAP, and the Afrotique." Commoners are "women with names like LaQwanda, who wore lycra regardless of dress size." BAPs are affluent, well-educated African-American princesses. And Afrotiques are "righteous womanist sisters with natural hair and clothes made from natural fabric." There's never any doubt that most of the characters in these books are aspiring BAPs -- in mind if not education and wallet -- but these distinctions, of course, merely skim the surface. Inside the three categories, class antagonisms are too multitudinous to detail.

Interestingly, the most complex and finely wrought of these novels is a book about a family that's in danger of losing its middle-class status. Faye McDonald Smith's lovely "The Flight of the Blackbird" introduces us to the Burke family. The wife, Mel, works for the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. The husband, Builder, owns his own construction company. "Flight of the Blackbird" describes what happens when Mel is "downsized" from her job, and Builder's financial fortunes take a similar turn for the worse.

Smith does a nearly miraculous job of depicting a family in free fall. Their social invitations dry up; the young daughter is kicked out of her private school; surly bill collectors loiter on their doorsteps. Worse, they feel paralyzed, unable to express their anger. "(Builder) knew he was coming across as embittered and cynical; another black man who wasn't making it and who therefore blamed the system."

When the family does get their act back together -- after a brutal incident that might best be termed "marital rape" -- it's with a healthy dose of clear-headed reality. Not only will Mel and Builder work together to restore his business, but they decide to opt out of the Negro Geography game. They've seen class warfare from both sides, and intend to find their way in the world without worrying about what others think.

In "Good Hair," Little puts this sentiment a little differently. "I'm just so sick of you business-card-flashing, Armani-suit-wearing, portable-phone-having assholes that I wanna scream," her harried protagonist intones. That's a sentiment that anyone who's read this high heap of new novels will recognize. Yet it's the fine, insecure and often angry social distinctions these young writers dig into that make their books -- like life -- so engaging.

"Good Hair," by Benilde Little.
Simon & Schuster, 237 pages.
"He Say, She Say," by Yolanda Joe.
Doubleday, 272 pages.
"The Hand I Fan With," by Tina McElroy Ansa.
Doubleday, 462 pages.
"So Good," by Venise Berry.
Dutton, 280 pages.
"Flight of the Blackbird," by Faye McDonald Smith.
Scribner, 348 pages.
"How Stella Got Her Groove Back," by Terry McMillan.
Viking, 368 pages.

Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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