Sunday, June 6, 2010

Red Letter Days

When Dr. Carter G. Woodson started "Negro History Week" in the second week of February, 1926, it was a brilliantly calculated gesture; both a very public assertion of the legitimacy of the suppressed narrative of a people, his life's work as an African American historian, and a knowing, even witty comment on the growing American tradition of marking February 16th, the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, with all sorts of pious, patriotic and racially sanitized and segregated celebrations of "The Great Emancipator." (Interesting to note that while Lincoln's birthday had entered the American calendar as a red-letter-day well before 1926, it was never actually made a national holiday. The long weekend that second week of February, remember, is officially just "President's Day," so named because of resistance from various, shall we say? bad losers? in Congress to nationally recognizing Lincoln's birthday -- and this in 1971!) The month of February was not to become Black History Month until 1976. Don't know just how and when that happened, but I'm quite sure it was done with the best intentions. All I do know is, come February, bookstores large and small will find some books by and or about Black folks, and put up a table.

More than thirty years after Black History Month got started, what was intended to be a celebration, has come to be seen, at least among some African American authors, ironically enough, as something very like segregation. February has been described as a "ghetto," into which historians, academics, political and cultural commentators, even novelists and playwrights, have all found their books herded. Wonder when you'll be seeing that next book by an African American? Mark your calendar for "Lincoln's Birthday."

Publishers, and bookstores, it must be said, depend entirely too much on these damned red-letter-days in the calendar. Christmas, of course, is inescapable. It starts nowadays in October, as has been relentlessly bemoaned every year since I can remember, but what of it? Any idea just how dependent upon what are now uniformly called "Holiday sales" American retailers really are? Make peace with it. But, come March, do we really need to see another table-display under a shamrock sign featuring the novels of James Joyce, Dublin pub-guides, and a new history of the Irish in America? Father's Day? Other than Christmas, you may trust me, you will never see so many weighty new volumes on the history of WWII as you will right now in bookstores. Mother's Day? Who knew there could be so many pretty little pink books? It isn't just the harmless predictability of these marketing opportunities that makes for such depressing familiarity. What's frustrating for anyone who works in a bookstore and thinks about this kind of thing is that, really, nobody seems to think about this kind of thing much anymore at all, and yet...

Has anyone else noticed that Black people buy books all the year 'round? That The Greatest Generation is getting a little thin on the ground? That mothers no longer seem much interested in reading volumes of gilded, pastel poetry? That books on pumpkin-carving don't seem to be moving very well, even in October?

A couple of years ago, when the headlines were full of the "die-off" of honey bees, we put out a Halloween display with books about this, and other scary things like global warming, Wall Street, and Sarah Palin. Over the table we hung a sign featuring a big dead bee. The sign said "Scary Stories for Grown Ups." Clever, right? Sold some books off that table too, some really interesting and important books, as well as some genuinely silly books. Now, when asked to contribute to this display, there were a couple of booksellers who brought over the usual paperbacks of Dracula, or Bunnicula. Sigh. When asked to spruce the table up a bit for us, you know, give it a little something extra, besides the sign, a perfectly nice person from the promotions staff came down and started hanging witches' brooms and pointy black hats. It wasn't so much that not everyone in the bookstore quite "got" what we were doing. The whole idea of that display was always a bit elitist and snobby, let's be honest, and that sort of thing doesn't work really unless there are going to be people who can honestly look at the thing and say, "I don't get it." The depressing aspect of that project was that there are those people in even a bookstore for whom Halloween is and will always only be Dracula, witches' brooms and pointy black hats. It wasn't that they necessarily didn't "get" the joke, it was that we always do what we always do, right? It's Halloween. Dracula + witches' brooms +pointy black hats = Halloween.

James Joyce + shamrocks = Saint Patrick's Day.

Neruda's love poems + hearts = Valentine's Day.

And so on.

As I said, this simply does not work anymore. It's been done to death. It is as stale as wedding cake from the freezer.

Nobody reads Seamus Heaney's Beowulf while drinking green beer, or takes up a copy of Cornel West's memoir because Abraham Lincoln's birthday, or even Frederick Douglas's birthday, for that matter, or decides to read Emma Donoghue because it's Women's History Month. We, as booksellers -- and publishers, publicists, and librarians for that matter -- have to be a bit smarter than this, don't we?

Now June rolls around, and guess what? It's time to be gay.

So, what am I going to do about it? Well, I'm preparing a list of new GLBTQ books for a newspaper piece to which I was asked to contribute.

See, that's the thing about all these Red Letter Days. Yes, it is frustratingly, even insultingly banal to think that Gay only happens in June, or that Blacks only read books in February or that everyone's dad is in his eighties and watches nothing much but The History Channel. Yes, we should be well beyond these marketing cliches by now. And, yes, many if not most of these more recently adopted holidays and annually scheduled celebrations have become as culturally empty and numbingly predictable as the heart-shaped box of chocolates on Valentine's Day and "White Christmas" on a loop at the mall in November.

But it is worth remembering that the very predictability and blandness of much of what happens during Black History Month, or Women's History Month, or National Poetry Month, or with arrival of Pride in June, still marks a significant change in our society, much of it just during my own lifetime, and that as boring as it may be to see yet another wearin' of the green, or watch CPAs parading in leather chaps under a blazing June sun (hopefully, this year,) it was not so long ago that none of this was possible in America.

What we need to do then I suppose is maybe try a little harder, even just in bookstore displays, to remember that not everybody "get's it," even now. But that doesn't mean we can't try something other than just selling rainbow stickers this June, now does it?

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