Urban YAL, the Morpheus of The Literature Matrix

Image found on Google Images

Image found on Google Images

Street fiction or urban YAL is finding its way into secondary classrooms.  As a former English & reading teacher, it puzzled me how kids who scored in the lowest quartile of the state assessment tests and claimed they hated reading were so engrossed in books like The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah or Dirty Red by Vicki Stringer.  Those students who listen to entertainers like T.I., 50 cent, etc. may carry around their latest forays into the genre.

The tests identified them as not having the ability to read.  But they were reading in my rooms.  Some teachers are opposed to this type of fiction for various reasons, but these books keep making the YALSA/ALA list of books for reluctant readers. I believe interest is the key into reaching these students.  Once you can get them hooked to reading, then you can move them to other types of genres.  Let’s face it:  these students feel like they have received the scarlet “F” when they get these reading scores back.  I have worked with students who failed the FCAT in Florida several times and were close to dropping out because it held them back from graduating.  I used innovative techniques to work with them and get their skills where they needed to be.  I advocate the use of out-of-the-box techniques to reach them and then use multifaceted instructional methods to teach them what they need to know and make them into competent readers.  Now I have my ideas about why standardized scores are low and how to reach struggling readers, but I will leave that issue for another time. 😉

So here is a little representation of  the varying views of this genre.  I asked various authors and avid readers for their opinions. Afterwards, you will find some YAL and teaching resources. 

Now take the red pill and enter the literature matrix.

Images found on Google Images

Images found on Google Images

In The Matrix trilogy, Morpheus says:  “You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.  Remember, all I’m offering is the truth-nothing more.”

Urban literature/street fiction offers the same to its readers.

It is a genre whose origins trace back to Robert”Iceberg Slim” Jones, Donald Goines, and Sister Souljah.  It depicts the lives of people who exist outside of the margin.

Characteristics of Urban/Street Fiction

  • Edgy lifestyle
  • May include explicit depiction of drugs, violence, & sex  and/or excessive use of profanity
  • Sometimes mirrors hip hop culture
  • Depicts characters in lower socioeconomic environments
  • Gives a voice to those who are voiceless
  • Drama-driven
  • Shows real-life issues & character’s desire to overcome circumstances
  • May be written by entertainers in the hip hop music industry
  • Heavy use of slang/Black English
  • No apologies for “This is who I am” mentality

The Black literature matrix is a platform to represent aspects of African American culture. It contradicts the images often found in the literary canon.  Works such as Beloved, The Invisible Man, A Lesson Before Dying, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and thanks to Dr. Henry Louis Gates, The Norton Anthology to African Literature, depict the broad spectrum of black experience.

In the last few years, urban fiction/street fiction has made its way on the literary scene.  It has always been there before.  But now, the genre dominates the brick-and-mortar and digital books shelves.  Those who crave literary fiction have a time finding those books. Sometimes it is like searching for a needle through a haystack.

Everyone has different views on this new kid on block.  Some people question whether certain images challenge or perpetuate stereotypes. Some wonder if the use of slang is purposeful or if it is a sign of a lazy or unskilled writer.

Some writers and avid readers of literature shared their views on urban literature:

Shelly Ellis, author of Gibbons Gold Diggers series, thinks that the use of slang should be reserved for dialogue and the characters’ inner thoughts only.  It should not be used in the overall narrative.

In her opinion, Black culture isn’t monolithic. Street fiction only represents a small part of both.  She feels authors should earn respect based on their work and not their genre. Drama and copious bloodshed is not a substitute for cohesive plot and characterization.

Diamond Drake, author of Love’s Fool, has the same opinion about the quality of writing in urban literature.  Her issue is with static characters and excessive grammatical mistakes.

“I think the reason some writers and readers are opposed to urban/street lit is because of the negative images portrayed and glorified.  What bothered me about the ones I’ve read is that there was never anything redeeming about them,” said the author.

Jamie Broadnax, creator of BlackGirlNerds, shares a similar concern about storylines that do not illustrate advancement and upward mobility in the black community. She said, “I question if this lit is being used to romanticize the life of being a thug or if there is really a story to be told.”

Nita Bee, book blogger, disagrees.  “[Slang] is the language of the ‘streets’ and it should be reflected in the writing.  I believe those that are opposed to [street fiction] have to mainly do with how the story is told.”

Nicole Dunlap, author of Miss Scandalous, said, “All genres should be respected from Christian to erotica, but not all genres are for all people.  Street lit is the rawest form of African-American fiction out there.  The bare bones of what you can read.”

Perhaps urban literature/street fiction is our Morpheus.  Urban literature/street fiction is just a small part of the continuum of African American literature and culture.  This continuum involves generational, socioeconomic, and historical lenses. The lenses people choose to view it through depend on their own personal experiences.

The genre defines the reality of those who choose to identify with it.  

Perhaps urban literature is a genre that deserves its voice, has its own characteristics that define it, and is a taste that one must acquire.  Just like some people do not care for romance, science fiction, fantasy, adventure, mystery, etc., all genres are still written works of expression.

Reading is an act that exposes people to different worlds and views. People do not have to follow or agree with them, but the writers didn’t create it for that purpose. They created those works as a form of art.

As students of literature, adolescents can read those works of art as texts for critical literacy.

Image found on Google Images

Image found on Google Images

Teaching Resources:

  • Street Fiction—Teacher Tube (Click on Docs, & then search “street fiction.”  It is a Power Point presentation.)  http://www.teachertube.com
  • List of Urban YAL books


  • “Street Fiction:  What Is It and What Does It Mean for English Teachers?” Marc Lamont Hill et al.  English Journal.  January 2008 issue.
  • “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy & Critical Literacy” by Dr. Ann Lopez


  • Critical Literacy in the Classroom:  The Art of the Possible  by Wendy Morgan

More about the Contributors

Nicole Dunlap’s books can be found at www.nicoledunlap.com.

Diamond Drake’s books can be found at www.diamondrakebooks.com.

Shelly Ellis’s books can be found at www.shellyellisbooks.com

Check out Jamie’s BlackGirlNerds blog at www.blackgirlnerdy.blogspot.com

Check out Nita Bee’s buzzing book reviews and poetry at www.nitabee.com

What is a book that teens have read or you have used that has sparked a controversy?



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2 responses to “Urban YAL, the Morpheus of The Literature Matrix

  1. Another fantastic blog. Your posts are so thorough and detailed and well written so the reader is educated. You should be writing for teacher journals.Thanks for your wonderful writings,

    • Thank you for your very kind comments, Dera. I try to give enough information for anyone who wants to learn about it or actually teach it in the classroom. I just need to put the other resources on here soon. 🙂

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