I live in an area where the black population is a lower percentage than the general population. It’s not unusual to see a black person when I’m out, but it’s also very possible to go out and not see any. So, as I made my way around the huge market (the largest I’ve ever seen, with five aisles alone dedicated to frozen pizza and three very long aisles with various cheeses (this is, after all, Wisconsin). I became curious about the availability of African-American products, so I wandered over to the segregated section.
I’m not talking books. I’m talking hair care.
Not surprisingly, there was no black hair products section. I did notice that Pantene’s new line of shampoo and conditioner for relaxed (African-American) hair was carried, though, right there with the other Pantene products. That got me to thinking. Black hair products have been segregated as long as I can remember, even back in the day when Ultra Sheen ruled. But the Pantene products are always shelved with the rest of the Pantene products, even when there’s a black hair care section in the store.
I then headed for that other segregated section (and this time I mean books). The book section wasn’t all that large, but they did have a decent selection of romance. All the Harlequin/Silhouette lines were there . . . well, almost all. There were no Kimanis on the shelves with those Desires, Americans, Presents, etc.
Or so I initially thought. But as I scanned the racks, my eyes settled on a lone title with the distinctive Kimani trademark of a drawing of a female facial profile in bronze silhouette. The book was Brenda Jackson’s Irresistible Forces. The only other fiction title about African-American characters I saw in the store was Freshwater Road by actress turned novelist Denise Nicholas.
The interesting thing here was that the mass market version of Ms. Nicholas’ book had a cover depicting a woman from the waist down, wearing a full skirt. Her lower arms, legs, and bare feet were clearly visible, but they were drawn in a shade that suggested a tanned white female or perhaps a very fair black female (but only if that's what you're looking for). Ms. Jackson’s cover art showed no people at all, but rather just scenery of a breeze blowing through a bedroom.
Regular readers of this blog will probably remember that I mused about books with non-ethnic cover art a few months back, upon seeing upcoming covers. At the time I wondered if this would be the new trend. I also wondered if these books would sell better than other titles that depicted black characters on their covers. Well, Ms. Jackson’s book hit the New York Times bestseller list (the daddy of them all, y'all, congrats, Brenda!) at an impressive ranking, somewhere in the 30s. If this one store in the state of Wisconsin is any indication, it could be said that books with non-ethnic characters are also being picked up by stores in areas without significant black populations, thus expanding their exposure.
I don’t really have a point, but I do think both these things I noticed, about product placement and store buyer selection, are worth noting.