University of New Orleans African American literature professor Jacinta Saffold came of age reading Omar Tyree and Sister Soulja alongside the perhaps more familiar literary icons of Zora Neal Hurston, Toni Morrison, Henry David Thoreau and John Milton.
And while some may not view Tyree and Soulja in the same “elevated” literary vein, it is the kind of conversation Saffold hopes to spark with her book tentatively titled “Books & Beats: The Cultural Kinship of Street Lit and Hip Hop.”
Saffold has received a nearly $50,000 research grant from the Louisiana Board of Regents to advance her book project, which includes not only the manuscript, but plans for a video interview series with Black storytellers.
A portion of that research also includes Saffold’s “The Essence Book Project,” a digital archive that explores Essence Magazine’s bestsellers’ list for fiction published monthly from 1994 to 2010. Most of the nearly 500 titles were written by and about Black people, she said.
The book list project, which has its own social media accounts, seeks to catalogue and computationally conceptualize the Black literary landscape at the turn of the 21st century, Saffold said.
“The Essence Book Project helps illuminate how robust Black reading communities helped ensure that Black culture remained ahead of the digital turn,” Saffold has said.
The bestsellers’ list was based on sales data collected from independently owned Black bookstores across the United States, making it one of the most economically accurate archival sources for contemporary African American literature, Saffold said.
“Books and Beats”
As an avid reader, a high school teacher once found Saffold reading Sister Soulja’s book “The Coldest Winter Ever,” and decreed that it was not “complicated” or “elevated” enough for Saffold.
“The examples of the books that she gave as more elevated, none of them included authors that looked like me, stories that were similar to mine and for a really long time I didn’t have the language around why that bothered me,” Saffold said. “I felt that ‘The Coldest Winter Ever’ was—and I still do—a very complex story. It is the way that we decide to read it.”
That’s one of the purposes of “Books and Beats,” Saffold said.
“To be able to have intellectual conversations and debates around the points that they bring up and the kind of issues that the characters faced,” Saffold said. “And how we, if we’re faced with similar situations or circumstances, should navigate those sorts of issues.”
While Saffold doesn’t think her teacher meant any harm by questioning her reading choice, the encounter did help to steer Saffold’s career path.
“I do thank her for presenting this very complicated question that really propelled me to go get a Ph.D. to be a researcher in African American literature,” Saffold said. “To be able to say, ‘How do we unpack these kinds of complications and to be able to understand that stories written by Zora Neal Hurston are just as valuable as those written by Sister Soulja, Toni Morrison and anyone in between?’”
Saffold continued. “And, to figure out ways to provide the kind of scholarly and academic infrastructure around these different kinds of books so that African Americans who come behind are able to pick them up and be able to really engage with them in ways that students are able to engage with Shakespeare, with Milton, with Thoreau, with all of the amazing authors who had really important things to say.”
Saffold, also a scholar of hip-hop studies, said the nature of “street” literature is nebulous in that it encompasses a number of overlapping and competing genres in African American literature at the turn of the 21st century.
Her book examines the connectivity of street literature and hip-hop.
“So, it is really thinking about the way that street lit was created, in the time and culture milieu of hip hop,” Saffold said. “In ways that the music and dance and fashion and all of the kinds of cultural elements of hip-hop really kind of overshadowed the intellectual conversations that were happening in books at the same time.”
A number of street lit text focused on difficult coming of age stories that include instances of sexual harassment, of incarceration, of drug addiction, of gang violence and other social realities that people face, Saffold said.
Street lit authors such as Tyree and Soulja used elements of hip-hop culture—with overwhelming success—to sell their books, Saffold said.
“There is no other book that comes close to how many times ‘The Coldest Winter Ever,’ was ranked on the Essence list,” Saffold said.
Another goal of her book, Saffold said, is to bring attention to and celebrate the massive movement that was happening in music, books and fashion, among other areas during the twilight of the 20th century and dawning of the 21st century.
“I approach this not only as a researcher, but as a fan,” Saffold said. “I grew up reading these stories. I grew up loving hip-hop, so I feel like I’m trying to serve two purposes here in creating this text. A scholarly one, but also one of love and celebration.”
The Essence (Fest) Connection
Saffold was recently appointed to the executive advisory board of Hermann-Grima and Gallier Historic Houses, which are located in New Orleans’ French Quarter. The historic houses, built in 1831 and 1861, respectively, are now museums and offer tours that include insight into the lives of the enslaved Africans who toiled on those urban grounds.
“They are moving to a model similar to what is happening at Monticello, Whitney and a few other plantations that have historic records of the period of enslavement,” Saffold said. “They started a tour a year or so ago from the perspective of the enslaved on the property and talking more about their experiences.”
Saffold, who already has conducted video interviews with Essence Book List best-selling authors Virginia DeBerry, Donna Grant and Alice Walker, would love to create a book event at the historic houses, possibly during the annual Essence Festival of Culture held in New Orleans.
“I view it as some kind of restorative justice to be able to bring in people who are telling stories about African Americans in print to a space where their ancestors were not able to do so,” Saffold said. “It was strictly forbidden for them to know how to read and write and language was something that was expressly used to be able to keep enslaved Africans, enslaved.”
The Essence best-seller list was first published in-house in 1994 as one of Essence magazine’s 25th year celebration, Saffold said. The first Essence Fest was held that same year, also in recognition of the magazine’s 25-year anniversary, Saffold said.
“So Essence Fest and the book list were created at the same time,” Saffold said. “I would love, I mean, LOOOVE, to host a Black storytellers’ event here in New Orleans, possibly at the Hermann-Grima and Gallier houses, during the weekend of Essence Fest. I would just be in heaven, truly!”