THE NEW SONS OF ICEBURG SLIM.
On one side, you have African American leaders like the Reverend Dr. Calvin Butts, Professor Manning Marable and the Reverend Al Sharpton--all who have spoken out about the explicit violence and extreme misogyny they perceive in the urban pulp fiction material being published by the now one-year-old Syndicate Media Group. On the other side, you have actor/investor Wesley Snipes and publisher/ president Marc Gerald, who contend that their Syndicate Media Group's high-action dramas are a good way to get young black men more interested in reading. Sides were drawn late last year, pointing out the positive and negative aspects of Street Sweeper (November 2000, $16.98, ISBN 1-930306-00-8), the first in a series of books and accompanying compact discs, released by Syndicate, the publishing company co-owned by Snipes.
"I got behind the Syndicate because I wanted to provide a forum for talented young writers and to provide a production studio for movies based on their books," explained Snipes.
Gerald, who is white, is no stranger to African American tastes in reading. He is the former president of W.W. Norton's Old School Series, which specialized in the reissue of African American suspense novels. Some call these pulp fiction stories of the 1960s and '70s classics, while others call them blaxploitation novels.
Adding fuel to the fire is a marketing strategy that targets the books not only at young black and Latino men, but also at young men who are incarcerated. Syndicate actually has a prison sales coordinator.
"Too many young black men are behind bars," said Gerald in an exclusive interview with BIBR. "If you can't read while you are behind bars, your life is that much worse. We want our books to be a gateway for other reading. People criticize us for bringing our books into prisons. It's not like we're bringing drugs inside. It's not like we're selling violent books to choirboys. What happens if nobody introduces books to these readers?"
Snipes's reaction: "I take all critics seriously, but we believe in what we're doing and we look forward to showing people our complete plan as it unfolds," he adds. "It's a publishing company where we give some of these hot young writers the opportunity to write some novels with a gritty edge; a Donald Goines type of thing (see page 53). Those that are good, can come get down with us, and we can do some films and make some money."
Concerns from Black Community Pillars
Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu, the president/ founder of African Images Press looks at the situation completely differently. "We have a lot of people who don't and can't read. Almost twenty percent of our race are illiterate. That's one challenge to overcome. The second challenge is to get something really constructive into the hands of those who actually can read. I'm not in favor of this series at all. Those brothers who are in prison need much, much more than these types of books."
The inaugural novella, a gritty piece written by Ronnin Ro titled Street Sweeper tells the story of a hit man who accidentally kills a little girl, then decides to turn his life around. The question is, will young brothers get the message of redemption that is buried among the novel's liquor, sex, high fashion and guns? Other books in the series include XXL Money by Roland S. Jefferson, The Perpetrators by Gary Phillips, Anything that Moves by Joel Rose, and Platinum by Michael Gonzales.
Parents may have a problem with the series, but don't most of us belong to the generation that made the Iceberg Slim novels big sellers? Many of us read the gunslinging, double-crossing, strong-armed tales of Chester B. Himes, John A. Williams, and Sam Greenlee. We supported blaxploitation movies in the 1970s like Superfly and The Mack.
Gerald thinks that people are overreacting. "I understand why there are complaints about the violence and language in our books. They aren't for everybody. They come with a parental advisory warning sticker. Why say that everything young people like is wrong? Why rule out the entire hip-hop culture?"
Kunjufu counters, "Chester Himes's books were written in a different era. We still had intact families then. We didn't have the distraction of 120 channels to choose from, crack was not an epidemic, and we didn't have two thirds of our children living with just their mothers. We still had the village to balance out anything considered negative. We no longer have that balance, so we have to be careful about what reaches our young readers."
Forerunners of Syndicate Heroes
If you are old enough to remember the album "Hustler's Convention" by Lightnin' Rod of the Last Poets in the early `70s, then you know the ideas of this series are nothing new. "Hustler's Convention" was accompanied by a booklet with a script and illustrated storyboards. It told the story of a fast-living hustler named Sport and his recently sprung-from-jail protege Spoon. The two plan to use all of their knowledge of cardsharking, pool shooting, and rolling dice at an unprecedented worldwide gathering of hustlers. Like "Hustler's Convention," Street Sweeper is the literary cross between a gangsta rap video and a pulp-fiction novel.
There is no denying America's love for violent entertainment. Aren't films like The Godfather, Scarface, and Goodfellas blockbusters? Didn't the television show The Sopranos receive a bunch of Emmy nominations and critical awards? As Gerald says, "Nobody says that John Grisham has to represent everything about white culture. Why is it that all black novels have to hit people over the head with serious cultural significance?"
Another concern with this new series is their constant bombardment of the reader with commercial brand names. In a world where covetousness often brings problems, some will find the name-dropping excessive. In the first three pages of Street Sweeper alone there's mention of Sega Dreamcast, Versace, Armani, Hugo Boss, Gucci, Cartier, Patek Phillipe, St. Ides Malt Liquor, Air Jordans and more. Gerald defends, "These brand names serve as frames of reference for young readers by naming products they know. It gives them instant visual connection to the characters and to our world."
The fact that there aren't many books written for young black men on the market puts Syndicate Media Group in the interesting position of at least trying, "Those who are concerned about the effects our books will have on young black men should be going to mainstream publishers and asking them why they aren't putting out books for this audience," says Gerald. "This is a demographic that mainstream houses have ignored."
Still, others like Dr. Kunjufu are not convinced. "We need every component that's out there to support our young people's quest to read. This is not one of them" he says "Brothers in jail especially don't need this type of literature. They are already learning this from each other."
The Reaction of Black Booksellers
Some African American booksellers are reluctant to carry this Syndicate Media line. Lecia Warner of Basic Black Books in Philadelphia has mixed emotions. "Not that we want to censor anyone, but if you look at all the violence we see on TV and everywhere else, I'm a little hesitant to sell more," commented Warner. As far as marketing this genre to prisoners is concerned, Warner says, "I don't agree with it, but I do watch shows like Oz. I get some young people who will only read books like The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah, and nothing else. If they would tone down the violence some, then maybe it would be a good idea to give this book to brothers in jail."
To their credit, however, Syndicate Media Group is planning another series of books slated to come out later this year. These books, under the banner of "Spirit Line" will be devoted to faith, spirituality, friendship, self-help and improvement. Mykel Mitchell, who heads this new branch of the company, said they are in the process of assigning 100-page sermons on these topics to various influential pastors across the country. Reluctant to mention any names, Mitchell would only say, "We are choosing impact people of faith who can give concrete answers, without religious jargon, to some of the problems facing African American men today. We chose pastors who will give an honest account of the way things are, and the directions that we need to take."
"Since we are dealing with hip-hop culture, it is not surprising that we will be criticized, but I hope that people will give us the chance to grow," says Gerald. "As we grow, people will see that our hearts are in the right place. We care about the community, and we are going to put out books that young people are going to read and talk about."
Anthony C. Davis has served as the Lifestyles Editor of The Philadelphia Tribune. His extensive freelance writing has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Quarterly Black Review, and BET Weekend Magazine. He is the coauthor of Yo, Little Brother: Basic Rules of Survival FOr Young African American Males. A veteran of twenty years as a special education teacher in the Philadelphia School District, Davis holds a B.A. in Mass Media Arts from Hampton University and a certification in special education from Antioch University. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife Denys, author of The Spirit of African Design. Davis examines the explosive reactions to Wesley Snipes's new venture, a series of books and accompanying compact discs of high action drama, on page 56.
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|Title Annotation:||Syndicated Media Group|
|Author:||Davis, Anthony C.|
|Publication:||Black Issues Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2001|
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