ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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Whereas Coates concerns himself with the paper and ink world of publishing, Rudolph Lewis

 takes advantage of a medium unavailable to his predecessors: the internet. “I knew keenly

that print publication could not serve sufficiently what I wanted . . . widespread dissemination”



Urban Legends: Paul Coates and Rudy Lewis

By R. Darryl Foxworth


When searching for a good African-American novel at the local bookstore chain, you may find limited options on the shelves. Teri Woods, Vickie Stringer, Shannon Holmes, and Carl Weber are among the authors driving the current black literary explosion, and though their respective books sell in droves, they differ greatly in subject matter and style when compared to that of lauded contemporary black authors Toni Morrison and John Edgar Wideman. This “urban fiction” is filled with expletives and unrepentant descriptions of violence and drugs, reminiscent of the work of Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines. And you’re unfortunately hard-pressed to find other genres besides urban fiction represented in “African-American” book sections. To many booksellers, urban fiction is African-American literature.

And this marketing works. When walking the streets of Baltimore, it is obvious that Shannon Holmes’ B-more Careful and the latest Zane books are en vogue—even though the city that reads them is home to two stalwarts of a bygone era in black publishing and literature: Paul Coates and Rudolph Lewis. The two industrious African-American men are part of a generation that preceded many of the contemporary best-selling black authors. They are, as the 59-year-old Coates says, “from the movement.”

That movement is the “Black Consciousness Movement” that Lewis says “took place here in Baltimore, between 1967 and 1974.” Before founding Black Classic Press in 1978, Coates served as coordinator for the Maryland chapter of the Black Panther Party. Likewise, Lewis was involved with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Walter Lively-led Union for Jobs and Income Now.

Today Coates primarily publishes rare, oft-forgotten texts of significance to the African-American community. The Black Classic catalog contains seminal works such as W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Negro, as well as obscure titles such as Historical Sketches of the Ancient Negro, originally published in 1920.

These documents are generations away from highly stylized urban fiction, whose proponents consider it a new black renaissance, an extension of the Black Arts Movement and the Harlem Renaissance. Of course, its detractors regard it as trash, replete with misspellings and grammatical errors, that is unfairly replacing canonical black literature.

Coates reports that he first witnessed urban fiction emerge “in the late ’90s. These writers were writing stories, a lot of the time about their own lives, fictionalized of course, and began publishing them. . . . They were telling their own story, not stories for the community.”

He is quick to point out that he isn’t one of the people who find contemporary black literature problematic. “I love it,” he says. “After reading [urban fiction], people become interested in their history, and that’s when they come to us. [Black Classic Press] wouldn’t publish any of that stuff, but I love to see people read.”

And reading people are. The commercial success of urban fiction is so apparent that it has received coverage from such diverse media outlets as Newsweek,, and Black Issues Book Review in recent months; up for debate is its place in the annals of black literature. Jonathan Scott, a New York-based writer and Borough of Manhattan Community College professor of English, dissents from both opinions, writing in an e-mail that urban fiction is “a marketing label used to sell books whereas the Black Arts Movement came from the civil rights movement and Black Power. BAM and the Harlem Renaissance were closely linked to mass movements; urban fiction is a commercial category of writing with no connection to politics.”

And sell books urban fiction does. Vickie Stringer, the former cocaine dealer-turned-book publisher and author, sold 300,000 books in the opening 16 months of her company Triple Crown, getting herself a distribution deal with Atria Books in the process. Shannon Holmes’ Bad Girlz sold 50,000 copies in the first three weeks of its 2003 release.

Coates acknowledges that urban fiction reaches a wide audience, recalling a panel discussion that included Teri Woods, the author of books such as True to the Game and the Dutch trilogy, who spoke about the large volume of books she had in print. “We’re happy to put out 10, 15, 20 books,” Coates says, estimating the number of books his company produces in a given year. (He declined to give exact sales and production figures.)

Whereas Coates concerns himself with the paper and ink world of publishing, Rudolph Lewis takes advantage of a medium unavailable to his predecessors: the internet. “I knew keenly that print publication could not serve sufficiently what I wanted, namely, widespread dissemination,” says the 57-year-old Lewis. “Moreover, print publication had a low shelf life and poor distribution.”

Launched in the fall of 2001, his ChickenBones: A Journal web site ( has amassed a cult following, attracting about 5,000 visitors daily in 2005 and already exceeding 1 million visitors for the year. Traffic has risen steadily—from about 500,000 visitors in 2003 to an expected 2 million this year—and the site, described as a “journal for literary and artistic African-American themes,” has benefited from a wide range of contributors. Among them is Manhattan Community College’s [Jonathan] Scott, who has written a book about Langston Hughes, Socialist Joy, currently seeking publication. He has high praise for Lewis’ internet endeavor.

“ChickenBones has a single-minded purpose and that’s to uplift and educate black people and help keep the tradition of freedom struggle alive,” Scott says via e-mail. “In the age of historical amnesia, the older writers featured by ChickenBones remind people that a black liberation movement actually existed, and that it produced a great variety of writing and that these writers are still writing.

“ChickenBones is not about the commercial market,” he continues. “A lot of urban fiction is awful because it’s written in the hope of selling millions of copies, whereas ChickenBones is interested in beauty and complexity, regardless if anyone reads it.”

But like Coates, Lewis has no ill feelings toward urban fiction. “So-called urban fiction is an interesting and curious development,” he says. “It has not been fully examined, but some of it is good writing. Technology has made self-publishing affordable, as a hustle, like hip-hop, which has influenced it greatly. But it has no ideological center, like BAM and the Harlem Renaissance.”

Wendell Shannon has a unique perspective on this matter. The former Baltimore drug dealer and prisoner is now a 41-year-old entrepreneurial owner of the Words by Wendell bookstore on West Franklin Street and a novelist whose next book, Business as Usual, is the sequel to his 2004 debut effort, For the Love of Fast Money. He is but one of the many young black authors nationwide looking to cash in on the revitalized black literature market, a market dominated by urban and commercial fiction marketed to a new generation of black readers.

“I think this phenom is more of access than the repeat of the Harlem Renaissance, because in this instance we are self-supportive,” he says. “In the Harlem Renaissance, many of our talented writers still depended on widespread approval and support of races and cultures other than ourselves. It is unique to be black in America today. Our lives are beyond comparison. Our survival is different and we have to adapt to a changing environment. The proliferation of gangs, uncommon sexual experiences, and drugs are topics of interest. It is quite simple: The more traditional black literary stars are too far removed or out of touch with our everyday, common experience.”

The question thus becomes, is urban fiction African-American literature? Do the book titles presently filling “African-American Literature” sections represent the broad black experience or contain “other topics of interest” held by black readers?

When City Paper searched the shelves of a local Borders bookstore, only one James Baldwin book, Go Tell It on the Mountain, was discovered, while hardback editions of Toni Morrison’s Love were selling for $5.99, and neither was found in the “African-American Literature” section. Instead, Go Tell It on the Mountain, required reading for some high-school students, was found in the literature section; Love in the bargain section. Stocking the “African-American Literature” section? Zane, Springer, Woods, and Holmes, with no space for authors such as Z.Z. Packer or Octavia Butler, the MacArthur “genius” grant recipient noted for her science fiction.

As Shannon suggests, however, “everything moves in cycles.” But where does the black reader, uninterested in contemporary urban fiction or detached from the black community’s “common experience,” go when the bookshelves no longer reflect their interests? If you’re a Baltimorean, you might want to give Paul Coates or Rudy Lewis a visit.

Source: CityPaper

*   *   *   *   *'s 25 Best Selling Books



#1 - Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark
#2 - Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree
#3 - Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane
#4 - Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper
#5 - Stackin' Paper 2 Genesis' Payback by Joy King
#6 - Thug Lovin' (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark
#7 - When I Get Where I'm Going by Cheryl Robinson
#8 - Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby
#9 - The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 - Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 - Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 - Don't Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 - For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 - For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 - Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 - The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 - Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 - Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 - Stackin' Paper by Joy King

#20 - Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 - The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 - Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 - Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 - I Dreamt I Was in Heaven - The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 - Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
#2 - Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans
#3 - Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane
#4 - Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper
#5 - Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You're Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant
#6 - Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey
#7 - The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight
#8 - The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing
#9 - The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 - John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 - Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 -The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 - The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 - The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 - Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can't Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 - Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 - Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 - A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 - Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 - Age Ain't Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 - 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino
#23 - Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul by Tom Lagana
#24 - 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 - Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. "Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality."—Lisa Adkins, University of London

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The Warmth of Other Suns

The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

By Isabel Wilkerson

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper's wife, left Mississippi for Milwaukee in 1937, after her cousin was falsely accused of stealing a white man's turkeys and was almost beaten to death. In 1945, George Swanson Starling, a citrus picker, fled Florida for Harlem after learning of the grove owners' plans to give him a "necktie party" (a lynching). Robert Joseph Pershing Foster made his trek from Louisiana to California in 1953, embittered by "the absurdity that he was doing surgery for the United States Army and couldn't operate in his own home town." Anchored to these three stories is Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Wilkerson's magnificent, extensively researched study of the "great migration," the exodus of six million black Southerners out of the terror of Jim Crow to an "uncertain existence" in the North and Midwest. Wilkerson deftly incorporates sociological and historical studies into the novelistic narratives of Gladney, Starling, and Pershing settling in new lands, building anew, and often finding that they have not left racism behind. The drama, poignancy, and romance of a classic immigrant saga pervade this book, hold the reader in its grasp, and resonate long after the reading is done.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 15 February 2012




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