“Keepin’ it Real”
Incarcerated Women’s Readings of African American Urban Fiction
Megan Sweeney’s essay Keepin’ it Real is a refreshing examination of a genre of literature otherwise overlooked by critics. This essay is one of many compiled in Anouk Lang’s “From Codex to Hypertext,” which discusses the progression of what is considered as “literature.” Although Urban Fiction might seem irrelevant to professional criticism, the texts have proven how books “serve as a ground for reflection and critique as well as a means by which readers may be co-opted into various social groups or ideological positions” (14). Through various interviews with a group incarcerated women in Ohio and Pennsylvania, a large percentage of the genre’s audience, Sweeney reveals the diversity of textual interpretation as well as the effects that books can have on social relations and social activities.
Urban Fiction or “gangsta” literature was written as early as 1969, with authors such as Iceberg Slim, Sister Souljah, and Donald Goines. A “non-traditional” form of writing, the stories are rooted in the stories of street crime and tend to read with “the vocabulary and speech patterns of African American urban culture” (129). Naturally, there is an argument among critics (and penal officers, for that matter) over whether the genre can be considered narrative gold or simply “books that glamorize black criminals” (125).
Such anxiety that these books encourage crime and violence has caused several penal officers to remove them from prison shelves. Furthermore, there are cases, such as the Ohio institutions, where Urban Fiction has been banned. I was not surprised to read how racially driven the bans appeared to be; “Several women foreground the racialized dimensions…noting that violent crime thrillers by the white author James Patterson are the most abundantly stocked books in their prison library” (125). The “racial fear” caused books by Maya Angelou and Sanyika Shakur, as well as books addressing class/racial struggle, and essays on prison life to be banned as well. I can’t help but think back to discussions on literacy canons, and and the issues that arise from what texts are considered worthwhile to read and/or analyze. This essay was worth reading simply for the controversy Urban Fiction raises concerning racism and its effect on literature.
Besides revealing racist attitudes rooted federal institutions, Sweeney’s essay examines reader response to Urban Fiction. Are these books a report of events in a preexisting reality, or are they stories which cause the construction of a new reality? (128) Prisoner opinion on the matter is not universal. Some believe these books can encourage young women down the “wrong path,” while others use the genre to live vicariously in the outside world. Those women who are not familiar with “the streets” have read the books to gain an understanding of such a life.
The literature brings up important social questions about the nature of living on the streets and the value of education. There is not one clear answer as to what path(s) are desirable for the characters or the readers themselves. The books are plot driven, rather than character driven, so the reader can make connections with their own experiences. “I could really relate to her. It helps me keep my own head on straight” (137). This seems like a very elementary concept, but how often do you see a book where the protagonist is rooted in the heart of ghetto? Readers have gone on to explore other genres as well as leave the “street mentality” (139). After reading this essay and learning about the urban Fiction genre, I can safely say I have a better idea of the struggle to find equality in literature. I agree with Sweeney, “Our current failure to approach communal safety and well being from the perspective of social equality and social justice…represents an impoverishment of our social imagination” (140).