Urban fiction books helped guide me through my Black girlhood
April is Black Women’s History Month.
Last month author Omar Tyree announced that he would be publishing an adapted screenplay of his popular 1993 urban fiction book, Flyy Girl. I began thinking about the impact that genre has had on my life, and how it has shaped my worldview as a Black woman.
As Goodreads explains, urban fiction is written mostly by Black authors “and is as much defined by the socio-economic realities and culture of its characters as [the book’s] urban setting,” but I didn’t read these kinds of stories for a long time. My middle and high school years were filled with literature classes and required reading lists that all focused on titles written years before any of us were born. Our teachers nailed into our heads the idea that these stories—Moby Dick, To Kill A Mockingbird, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, numerous Shakespeare plays—were vital to succeed in school and to understand literature, but aside from the reading comprehension skills I gained from these classics, I wasn’t very interested in the majority of them. (Aside from The Iliad and The Odyssey, which fed into my completely justified obsession with Greek mythology).
I realize now that I was uninterested in these stories because I didn’t see myself in them. The characters didn’t share my life experiences, and they certainly didn’t look like me.
Of course, there are Black characters in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, but they don’t display much depth or have multifaceted plot lines. Richard Yarborough, a professor and faculty research associate at UCLA’s Center for African American Studies, said in a Los Angeles Times article that the “Black characters exist largely as tools to help white characters successfully test their ethics.” Black characters essentially act as martyrs and moral teaching lessons for the white characters, and frankly, most Black characters in classic literature aren’t allowed to exist without bettering mankind at the expense of their own dignity.
Then, in eighth grade, I saw one of my classmates reading a book with a Black girl on the cover, her features similar to mine.
Standing in front of what I assumed to be a school, the mystery girl on the book cover wore a pair of large dangling earrings and held a few books in her hand. I remember thinking this definitely wasn’t on any reading list we’d been given in class.
It was called Jayd’s Legacy by L. Divine, book three of the Drama High series. Once I got my own copies, it took me a little less than two weeks to finish the entire series. I made it a mission to seek out more books like Divine’s—urban fiction books that explored the intricacies of being a Black girl navigating city public schools. Divine’s series was filled with attitude, raw language, and, most importantly, Black characters who I could relate to. Divine wasn’t afraid for her characters to endure real-life situations like dating, friendship fallouts, consent, death, and sometimes violence—hence the series name DRAMA High.
These topics had been completely absent—or unrealistically presented—in all the other books I’d read. Sure, I’d spent hours reading The Clique series and could probably recite the entirety of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, but I still felt that girls who looked, sounded, and acted like me were missing from these contemporary YA stories.
I kept searching for more urban fiction, and my research seemed to peak when I found Sister Souljah’s award-winning novel, The Coldest Winter Ever. Heavily influenced by hip hop and Black culture, the story of Winter Santiaga unfolds in a way that is neither quiet nor timid in its depiction of sex, poverty, and drugs.
My 14-year-old self was in awe.
By the time I finished reading the book, I wanted to step outside of my suburban comfort zone with this new perspective on life. Santiaga’s adolescence and teenagehood was in complete contrast to mine. Our parents were different, our friends were different, our means to live were different. Still, I identified with her vulnerability and desire for the finer things in life. She lives in Brooklyn, a place I hadn’t yet visited as a teenager. Experiencing the vibrant atmosphere of one of New York’s most diverse boroughs through the eyes of a character that wasn’t just a tourist visiting for a summer solidified the importance of the genre to me.
The way Sister Souljah let readers in on Santiaga’s exploration of her sexuality was foreign to me. I knew very little about sex as a preteen because my mother had never formally given me “the talk.” Everything I’d learned was through media portrayals and embarrassing conversations with my close friends. Sister Souljah’s book and others like it served as unfiltered encyclopedias, filling me on the parts of my culture that I’d never experienced firsthand.
But isn’t that what a good book is supposed to do—make you feel like you’re going through whatever the characters are going through? The grittiness of the writing in urban fiction literature is why the genre is distinguished from other works. Most of the time, the writers behind these titles write from their own inner-city experiences or use their surroundings as inspiration.
Despite The Coldest Winter Ever popularly being categorized as “street” or urban literature, Sister Souljah rejected the label. In 2011, she told The Root, “I think that when European authors or Euro-American authors write about urban, suburban, or rural areas, it’s just called literature. So I call my work literature, and anyone who reads my books knows that it’s literature.”
Still, Ashley Te’Arra, an urban fiction author and entertainment writer based in Alabama, said The Coldest Winter Ever set the bar for the genre. “To this day, the urban fiction genre is still somewhat frowned upon. Some won’t take you seriously in this industry, especially as a [woman],” she said. “However, Sister Souljah broke barriers, without a doubt. The amount of people who respect urban authors’ creativity, in my opinion, outweighs those who don’t.”
One misconception of urban fiction that author Tabitha Sharpe pointed out is that most people think that there are specific themes that must be included in every book. “There is a stigma from readers… that says urban fiction and urban romance has to have drugs, side chicks, lots of sex, and can only be written in ebonics,” or African American Vernacular English (AAVE), she said. But understanding AAVE is really no different than understanding Shakespeare’s use of “thou” and “thee.”
While the characters in urban fiction novels didn’t always speak like me or live in homes similar to mine, I never negated the importance of their stories. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t personally relate to every detail. But the same reasons why I enjoyed reading urban fiction books are the same reasons why they may intimidate people unaware of or unfamiliar with the culture.
“For some people, [urban fiction books] provide an escape from their daily life,” said Sharpe. “It’s important because some books are doing their best to educate our people and other races about what goes on in our communities. If nothing else, [these books are] educational, entertaining, and inspiring.”
Reading a book accented with slang, big hoop earrings, and unique names felt like home.
By belonging to a race that society has historically abused, ostracized, and looked down upon, I see the need for the urban fiction genre as anything but trivial. Representation should always be intersectional. It’s great to have woman characters in books, TV shows, and movies, but when you belong to two minority groups, you’ll always want to see a fuller representation of yourself.
Urban fiction is the first place where I saw myself whole. When I read these books as a teenager, I didn’t have to choose which part of my identity I was going to read about. A book in which the author controlled the narrative by also belonging to the community they discussed was refreshing. The unapologetic work of urban fiction authors helped me to embrace the complexities within my culture.