Eric Jordan grew up wondering whether Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes were the only African-American authors that existed. That's because whenever he visited bookstores in search of other black works, he came away empty-handed.
knew something was missing. Even when I went to the library, they didn't have titles I was looking for. . . . I had the feeling I was not being shown the whole picture about who I was," says Mr. Jordan, 39, of West Baltimore.
Not anymore. In the last year, African-American literature has experienced a resurgence not seen since the '60s. The American Booksellers Association recently began a quarterly publication called "African-American Bookselling" and Blackboard, a list tracking the top five fiction and nonfiction bestsellers by or about blacks. Black bookstores and publishing houses are proliferating; and even national chains such as Waldenbooks are getting into the act, expanding the sections devoted to black literature.
"We're proving that the old stereotype, 'If you want to hide something from a black person, put it in a book' isn't true," says Hodari Abdul-Ali, president and founder of Pyramid Books, a Hyattsville-based chain of African-American bookstores with two shops in Maryland.
Publishers and retailers point to several reasons for the trend: the popularity of the afrocentric educational approach; the reaction many minorities have had to the conservative political climate; and the growing interest in popular black culture.
"There's no question that black culture has come into the limelight more than ever before," says David Russell, editor of newsletters for the American Booksellers Association in New York. "Ten years ago rap didn't dominate MTV, and there was no Spike Lee. Now everyone's finally realizing that black culture has something to offer, whether it's a movie like "House Party" or an author like Charles Johnson."
Mr. Abdul-Ali agrees but credits the political climate with awakening interest in African-American books. "I think the Reagan-Bush era jarred a lot of people, especially young people who found black leaders not making enough noise. They found themselves rediscovering men like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X," he says.
For many trailblazers, their businesses grew out of frustration. Nearly two years ago, Leticia Peoples created Odyssey Books, a publishing company in Silver Spring devoted to black romance novels, after having spent her life reading tales of lust among white characters and of oppression among blacks, she says.
"Women of all ethnic groups had just accepted what was available," says Mr. Peoples, 51.
But black women are tired of reading about downtrodden blacks, where everything relates back to slavery or to women being victims and men being abusers."
In the six novels published so far, she often has set higher standards for her work than other romance publishers do. Flesh-filled covers are not accepted; characters must be middle class or above; and domestic violence may not figure into the plot.
Similarly Faye Childs, a Columbus, Ohio, writer, says she decided to create Blackboard after writing her first novel and discovering that best-seller lists were dominated by white authors. The first list was distributed to 8,000 bookstores this July, and she now works regularly with 35 bookstores to compile the monthly statistics.
"My goal is to get Blackboard recognized as a credible list in the DTC industry, so that it does for African-American authors what the NewYork Times best-seller list does for white authors," she says.
The new emphasis on African-American literature has caused a debate in some book circles over whether the trend is separatist, says the ABA's Mr. Russell. He sees it simply as a clever marketing technique. "Booksellers have known for years that to break something out helps sales. That goes for everything from . . . science fiction to black authors," he says.
Aside from the benefits of promoting writers and educating patrons, retailers are learning there's money in this genre. Last .. year, sales for Pyramid Books exceeded $1 million, and the five-store chain has plans to expand next year. Of the 3,000 titles carried, one of the most popular has been "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," which has enjoyed newfound popularity thanks to director Spike Lee's upcoming movie.
But unlike the '60s, when the popularity of African-American literature was tied to the black power movement, the books now cover a variety of subjects.
"In the past, you would almost be chastised as an Uncle Tom or Aunt Jemima if your work wasn't relevant to the struggle of black people. You don't find that today. It runs the gamut from militant to homosexual to books that reflect middle class values," Mr. Abdul-Ali says.
For Jody Armstrong, the greatest benefit has been a morenlightened attitude toward his heritage.
Where to look
NB Here are some local resources for African-American literature:
African-American Books Plus, 8640 M. Guilford Road, Box 203, Columbia 21046, 730-0779. Sells children's books, videotapes and other items through book fairs; also sponsors student book clubs and produces a catalog.
African-American Literature Service, Suite 132, 5430 F Lynx Lane, Columbia 21044, 964-6451. Sells children's books and some adult works through book fairs.
Everyone's Place, 1356 W. North Ave., Baltimore 21217, 728-0877. Sells books, artwork, clothing and jewelry; also sponsors book signings and has an extensive video library.
Pyramid Books, 3062 Mondawmin Concourse, 2nd level, Baltimore 21215, 383-8800 and Prince George's Plaza, 3500 East-West Highway, Hyattsville 20782, (301) 559-5200. Carries 3,000 titles and videotapes, games, calendars and posters; also offers weekly storytelling sessions for students, book signings and readings.