Black History Month Heroes: Jamal Wallace from "Finding Forrester"

The great books. The fine arts. Classical music. What do these three things have in common?

Jamal does sound more like a basketball players name…

If you have know anything about ghetto fiction, you probably know where this is going. The contributions of Black writers to literature have all centered around one predominate theme: racial angst. Rare is the Black writer who can climb out of this hole dug by the Black writers who came before them. Thus the plight of Black writers.

This fact is so well-known that Wal-Mart helps out would-be book buyers by segregating its selection of available tomes by race, so customers immediately understand the value of their potential purchase. In the coming years, colleges — due to budgetary concerns — will be forced to remove Black Studies from their course offerings.


Because so few new books of merit have been penned that help students grasp the plight of 21st Black people. Discrimination once existed in America toward Blacks, but that has since been alleviated with the real discrimination pointed directly at white students.

The books of the past, penned by Black people, all center around the theme of overcoming racial discrimination. The Black books written now all center around a “thugnicity” mindset, which is reflected in how Black people act.

One simple way of understanding the plight of Black writers is the lack of Hollywood interest in buying the rights to Black books — save Precious — and turning them into movies:

Films about the lives of famous black Americans are far more plentiful – in part because they’re comparatively easier to produce. Even when made with artistry and ideas, as Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X’’ and Michael Mann’s “Ali’’ were, a biopic tends to rely on a well-established formula that accommodates almost any life, with all due respect to the achievements of the person who lived it. It’s relatively easy to get an audience to see a film about an important leader or beloved entertainer. The commercial prospects of “Ray’’ are much more promising than a work of science fiction taken from Octavia E. Butler’s “Parable of the Sower.’’

 One Black writer has dubbed the attitude of book publishers as “Seg-BOOK-gation” because so few Black writers are deemed marketable to an audience that is overwhelming white:

You may or may not be familiar with African American Author Bernice Mcfadden, whose 2000 debut novel, SUGAR, was highly praised by critics nationwide. 

Recently she shared with DrumTide her perspective on “Seg-Book-Gation.” 

 I recently read an article you had written on the disappearing breed of African American writers of literary fiction, in which you coined the phrase “Seg-Book-Gation”. Could you please comment on the subject, and what led you to discover that Publishers are putting AA writers in this “wrestling ring” to compete for only African American audiences? 

Publishers have turned literature written by African American writers into a genre which they have labeled African American Fiction – even if that fiction has nothing to do with the African-American experience. And in doing so they have alienated readers because that label sends the message: THIS IS NOT FOR YOU – to people who are not African American. This coupled with the practice of not marketing AA writers to a wider, “whiter” audience affects the numbers of books we sell – this translates into poor sales figures. But instead of publishing taking responsibility for this phenomenon, they point the blame on the community, accusing them of not reading or only reading one type of genre – in this case that genre would be the street lit and urban erotica. The illusion that African American readers only want to read one type of book and non-African American readers are not interested in reading literature written by people of color has levied a devastating and crippling blow to those of us who write literary fiction as well as contemporary commercial fiction. Many of us have found ourselves unable to obtain new book deals and some of us have even had our contracts canceled. 

Do you feel that generally the Black audience is only interested in books based on drugs, sex, and street lit, as the publishers suggest? 

Of course not. It’s just another racist stereotype.

The statistics on illiteracy and Black people’s indifference to literature would ostensibly scare away publishers who realize the futile economic gain in publishing a book targeted to Black readers of fiction, though the positive capital and publicity generated by publishing a fledgling Black writer might outweigh the monetary risk. Reading Rainbow was just a creation of brilliant marketers.

Sadly few Black writers of merit can be located that don’t persist in writing on that go-to theme of racial angst (it should be stated here that in the little spare time SBPDL has, a work of fiction is underway and also the creation of a Black villain for a graphic novel that progressive comic writers feel threatened to actually pen).

Well, the racial angst theme or the putrid waters of thug fiction. Black writers, having gone to the well of racial angst one to many times in fiction have found a collectivist mentality of “us” versus “them” (them being the white publishing industry) is necessary to survive:

But in the age of President Obama, when successful black writers can be found across genres and a Nobel Prizewinner, Toni Morrison, can be tapped to be the honorary chairwoman of the event, do black writers still need a conference to call their own?
In interviews, many black writers and editors, and others in the book world said yes. Black authors are part of the broader society’s struggles with the legacy of discrimination and exclusion, they said, and often need a more strategic approach to getting their work promoted, reviewed and sold.The conference, expected to attract 2,000 people, is a chance for writers to study and celebrate one another and for readers to hear writers presenting their work and dissecting social and literary themes. Over four days of workshops and discussions, the participants can also grapple with issues like the value of black sections in bookstores, the paucity of black editors in publishing and how to expand the list of black writers taught in schools. 

“Is a black writers’ conference still necessary? Absolutely,” said Mr. Mosley, an author of dozens of books of all kinds who has since retired the best-selling Rawlins series. “Black writers are still facing all kinds of questions about the world they live in and the battle they’re up against,” he said. “This is a chance for us to pay attention to each other and not take on the values of the broader society.”

Bibliophiles everywhere want to see the next great work of Black fiction, but don’t hold their breath in the process. One of the recent, shining examples of Black fiction is Push — the movie Precious — which paints a vivid portrait of Black underclass life that the more than 75 percent of Black children born out-of-wedlock can look forward to (if they can’t play sports):

Set in Harlem in 1987, “Precious” is a disturbing portrayal of an undereducated and obese sixteen year old growing up in a highly dysfunctional environment. The title character lives a diminished existence. She is consistently molested by her father and beaten and degraded by her mother.

So yes, Black writers don’t have an audience. The lone place a promising Black writer has been seen is, you guessed it, the movies. Remember Finding Forrester?

Finding Forrester is a 2000 American drama film written by Mike Rich and directed by Gus Van Sant. A black American teenager, Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown), is invited into a prestigious private high school. By chance, Jamal befriends a reclusive writer, William Forrester (Sean Connery), through whom he refines his natural talent for writing and comes to terms with his identity.. 

The film opens with 16-year-old Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown) sleeping in his bedroom, which is stacked with books, and then jumping up to go meet his friends on the basketball court. The friends begin to discuss a recluse, William Forrester (Sean Connery), who lives on the top floor of the building across from the schoolyard, and they regularly notice him watching them from his window, although they never see his face. One day after school, one of the boys challenges Jamal to sneak into the apartment. Jamal accepts the challenge and sneaks in through the window, but is surprised by the recluse and flees, leaving his backpack. 

Later, Jamal confronts the man who occasionally delivers supplies to the recluse and displays his gifted intellect discussing the man’s BMW car. After the man leaves, Jamal’s backpack is dropped to the street. Jamal finds the man read his journals and made editorial notes in it. Jamal returns to the apartment and requests the man read more of his writings, but is told to begin with 5000 words on why Jamal should “stay the fuck out of his home,” which Jamal promptly completes. 

At school, Jamal has just completed state required testing where it is revealed that he is an intellectually gifted student, which he has hidden from others by performing just average in his schoolwork.

It is a well-known fact that all Black students – like Jamal – purposely under-perform in school so as not to appear “Acting White” thus opening themselves to beatings from fellow Black students. It is funny to know that everyone understands that the racial gap in learning is permanent, which is why Atlanta Public Schools incredible gains in the CRCT test registered as bull-sh** immediately.

Black Fictional Month Heroes includes Jamal Wallace, a promising Black writer who feared that his intellectual gifts would forever impede his acceptance by the Black community that is disinclined to accept such sagacity.

Finding Forrester is but a movie, but having a fictional Black writer as the protagonist was a monumental disservice to those Black writers languishing in the sordid alleys of Thug Fiction everywhere.

As Sean Connery said, though:

Forrester: You’re the man now, dog! 



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