For a curious little girl, books opened a world of wonder to me. I especially loved fiction and fairy tales because I was blissfully hopeful and I believed in happily ever after. I enjoyed storytellers like The Brothers Grimm and Aesop because, even as a child, I was unconsciously studying style. Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and I had some exciting times together. I cavorted with the “Little Women” of Louisa May Alcott and hung out on the streets with Oliver Twist.
I devoured good writing, paying little attention to what color the characters were. Except for the occasional mention of blond hair or blue eyes, I didn’t dwell on the characters being white. Our mutual quests for love, happiness, fair play, and equal treatment were basically the same. I grew up being a reader of diverse books. In fact until I went to college, I hadn’t even picked up a book by a black author!
To share a brief history of my reading life, I lived a good distance from the public library, but the traveling branch would park on the corner of my street every other Tuesday. I’d go there after school with a shopping bag and return home laden with enough books to last me two weeks. Then, I’d travel to far away lands, assume the personas of assorted and exotic people and immerse myself in their adventures. If you’re a reader, you know what I mean.
As I grew into adolescence, I began trading comic books with my cousins. We girls liked Archie, Veronica, Betty, and Jughead. We barely tolerated Lois Lane for she and her photographer pal, Jimmy Olsen, were always getting into trouble that Superman had to interrupt his busy schedule for. Eventually, I branched out to romance comics which included the Heart Throbs, Romantic Adventures, and Girls Love series.
I was looking for an explanation for America’s fascination with sex and that caused me to read Lady Chatterley’s Lover much too soon. Connie and Oliver’s lovemaking was too subtle to quench my desire for red-hot descriptions of the act. D. H. Lawrence was much too sophisticated a wordsmith and his work was over my head. I extended the search into my teens, reading Peyton Place (liked it) and Lolita (hated it).
When I got to college I enrolled in a course taught by a white professor. I was skeptical and doubted that she would be capable of effectively teaching African-American Literature, but she opened a whole new world to me. Her ability to love and share the stories of my people captivated me and endeared her to me.
Coinciding with the civil rights movement and the murders of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, her course instilled a pride in me for the works of literary masters I hadn’t even known existed. You have to remember that public school reading lists in the 1960’s didn’t allow for any black literature.
I hadn’t yet experienced overt racism, and in fact, didn’t know anything except the sheltered life I was living. However the television images of the marches, lynchings, and police dogs frightened and angered me. It was the rebellious writings of a defiant, young slave named Frederick Douglass and the strength of a freed Booker T. Washington that gave me pride again.
The Harlem Renaissance authors, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and James Baldwin were the superheroes that introduced music, happiness, jazz, and a new diaspora for my life that offered food to my soul.
And still, despite all of that, good writing was good writing. Thus, I continued to pick up the popular novels of Mary McCarthy, Bel Kaufman, Jacqueline Susann, Roman Polanski, and Mario Puzo. I read them in addition to Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston, poets Nikki Giovanni and Amiri Baraka.
I’d already spent a lifetime figuring out that most of our stories were the same, so when I read Janet Daily, Barbara Cartland or Jude Deveraux, I wasn’t reading them as a black woman. I was reading as a woman! There was nothing about their stories that I couldn’t relate to. Their heroines had aspirations, careers, and deep loves. Their stories revealed the shared history and common values between and among our sub-cultures.
Therefore, I contend that reading diverse literature causes us to care and empathize with all the peoples we, and our children, must share this planet with. I get excited when I think about certain book clubs and organic movements that promote a global exchange of literature and ideas. Rave Reviews Book Club is one such organization.
While it’s not perfect yet because members still don’t realize the power the club holds, what RRBC does so well is bring together authors and writers from all over the globe and from every walk of life. It has been my honor to have my book read and reviewed by peers who have been willing to take a chance on a different kind of story with characters who don’t look or act like them.
These writers have proven to be appreciative practitioners of the slogan, “art for art’s sake.” They aren’t too different, too special, or too delicate to read the literature of an urban people. They have not stuck their heads in the sand and refused to look at what is going on all around them.
I hesitated to write this story or to introduce it to the club because I knew that certain members would be afraid to post it, tweet about it, or share it with their fans and followers. Certain aspects of The Neon Houses aren’t my reality either, but I am not too delicate to imagine and write stories that are different from mine as long as the stories are purposeful and not only for sensationalism.
I further contend that anyone who wonders what is wrong with our world, should pick up a book and read about another culture. Learn what motivates their actions. Understand them as they understand you. Reading diverse books is the first step to healing our country.