Color Coding

By shutting black authors out of its literature section, is Borders really giving people what they want?

If you were to stroll into your local Borders bookstore to look for, say, Paradise, Toni Morrison's latest novel, you'd probably go to the literature section. But Paradise wouldn't be there. Borders' corporate policy is to shelve Morrison's books, along with just about everything else written by black authors, in a separate African American literature section.

Since the 1970s, Borders has divided its inventory of literary books into three sections: general literature, African American literature, and gay and lesbian literature. But because of the way Borders catalogs its books -- buyers at the company's headquarters in Ann Arbor, Mich., assign each book a single routing code that tells local stores where to put it -- the policy usually means that when a store gets a shipment of Paradise, all the copies wind up in the African American literature section, and none in general literature. Buyers classify the books based on information from the publisher about the author's race: If a book's writer is black, it gets coded as African American literature.

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Jody Kohn, Borders' director of public relations, says that while the chain encourages its stores to cross-list authors (i.e., keep copies of Paradise in both the general literature and African American literature sections), many stores don't for logistical reasons. Mother Jones contacted several Borders stores nationwide and found that 10 out of 11 polled didn't cross-list Paradise or Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.

Kohn defends the policy as simply a reaction to consumer demand. "We've found in informal surveys [that] this is what our customers want," she says. "[It's] easier to find authors that way."

That wasn't the case at Borders' Minneapolis store, which stopped shelving books by African Americans separately several years ago. "We found that despite all the little signs that we would put up, people would always say, 'You don't have any Toni Morrison,'" says Cathy Fejes, the store's manager. "It wasn't working for our particular clientele, which was not predetermined to think of [African American literature] as being a separate section. And so we changed it." (Borders' main competitor, Barnes & Noble, doesn't follow the practice either.)

Borders' customers in Minneapolis weren't alone in finding the practice questionable. Here's what some notable black authors had to say when we informed them of the policy:

Terry McMillan, best-selling author of Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back: "I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, you don't have Jewish American sections or Irish American sections. So it's insulting and flattering at the same time that we get our own special section. On the other hand, since we are trying hard to eliminate color lines, we should all just be included in [general] literature."

Sapphire, author of Push: "There is a strong category, starting back with the early slave narratives, of specifically African American literature. So I don't feel badly if my books are classified in African American literature. But I do feel dreadfully discriminated against and wronged if those books are not cross-listed. A person should be able to walk into any bookstore and, if there's a section called African American literature, find Push. They should also be able to look under literature and find Push."

John Edgar Wideman, winner of two PEN/Faulkner awards and author of Two Cities: "In this day and age, with bookstores carrying fewer and fewer titles, I feel happy to be in any bookstore. [However], I think the message of separate shelving, unless it's qualified somehow by cross-listing, is an implicitly destructive practice. The [idea] that anybody, anywhere, has made some satisfactory categorization, that [there] is an intellectual or aesthetic reason for putting black books in one place and white books in another place, perpetuates a lot of false ideas about race."

Michael S. Harper, poet and author of Dear John, Dear Coltrane: "When I go abroad they treat me as an American author. [But] we've always had segregation in all manners of our society, so why should bookstores act any differently? If Ellison is listed only in the African American section, some people are being cheated. But race matters. It just does."

John Callahan, executor of Ralph Ellison's literary estate and editor of Ellison's forthcoming posthumous novel, Juneteenth: "For heaven's sake, Toni Morrison is a Nobel Prize winner. Why isn't she in the literature section? It demeans the literature. Invisible Man, for example, is much more than an African American novel. It's a novel in the great tradition of literature. Ellison was profoundly integrationist, and he once said, 'Perhaps the most insidious and least understood form of segregation is that of the word.'"

Shelby Steele, conservative social critic and author of A Dream Deferred, which is shelved in Borders' African American studies section: "[This] is an instance where Shelby Steele will scream racism. I write to America about issues that are central to American life, and I profoundly resent the fact that my race is causing me to be isolated and ghettoized. It hurts me as a writer. White males are seen as the archetypal human being, but I'm some sort of specific racial being. It's just odious and there's no justification for it at all."

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