Urban fiction books chronicle the plight, stories, and perspectives of black Americans. The genre can be engaging and heartful or a powerful story of love and loss. Some call these books “hip hop lit” or “street lit.” No matter what you call it, the books often focus on dark, foreboding tones, the economic and cultural realities of its characters, and graphic profanity and violence.
The stated purpose of Urban fiction shows with no reservations the experience of its characters. Many books in the genre take directly from their author’s experiences in the world to craft their plight. Read on to define urban fiction, learn its main themes, and where to start reading.
The History of Urban Fiction: “The Souls of Black Folk”
Urban fiction begins with books written about the urban condition even by non-black authors. The genre first reveals itself in Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist and Stephen Crane’s Maggie, A Girl of the Streets.
Therefore, the original urban fiction does not rely on black American authorship, but on the bravery and honesty required to portray the realities of survival in low-income urban regions. Urban fiction evolved, however, in the 20th century into a black American genre.
W.E.B. Du Bois’ seminal essay, “The Souls of Black Folk” brought about this change. In this essay, Du Bois describes how the black American experience cannot be accurately depicted by non-black writers. Therefore, this spurred the need and attention for true inner-city and black American writers to tell their stories. Beginning in the 1970s with the black power movement and the emergence of louder voices for black American perspective, urban fiction became a bona fide genre.
Pimp by Iceberg Slim
Robert Beck (known as Iceberg Slim in print) wrote Pimp in prison in the 70s, often cited as the first modern urban fiction book. It used both black American dialect as well as Beck’s unique and unedited perspective to communicate his socioeconomic reality.
In the 1980s and 1990s, urban fiction dropped off and became dormant. Many historians suggest that rap music became the new staple of urban fiction, essentially providing an outlet for stories of socioeconomic struggle in another art form. However, many urban fiction books continued to define the genre.
Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree
The release of several books in the 1990s resurrected urban fiction, including Omar Tyree’s Flyy Girl. The 1993 coming-of-age story tells how a young girl named Tracy Ellison grew up in Philadelphia in the 1970s. The book is known not only for jumpstarting urban fiction in the modern era but for its explicit depictions of sex.
True to the Game by Teri Woods
True to the Game features a young girl who falls in love with a millionaire drug dealer. It thus deals with unique socioeconomic struggles by chronicling their quest to escape their fate in the projects, seduced by a cash-flooded world of quick success. This allows author Teri Woods to force them to confront the reality: that they can never escape.
The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah
Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever contributed to the contemporary environment that allowed urban fiction to flourish. In this book, the political activist and urban educator tells the story of a drug kingpin’s daughter. She gets what she wants in this story of winner-take-all neighborhood power struggles … until her father gets arrested and she has to confront the hard truths about her life.
Urban fiction books evolved into a solely black American enterprise. Thus, mainstream publishing rallied behind the profit potential of “street lit” to help the genre grow. Today, the classics of the genre can be re-read as pieces of history while modern urban lit authors continue to tell their stories without shirking the realities of their situation. That realism draws people to the genre, as well as emphasizing how it differs from mainstream narratives.
Urban fiction may not be the easiest in the world to read, but it wasn’t made to be.