Sunday, September 6, 2015

Words change us, save us: give books to our young people!

  "A book of black poetry slides under a cell door in solitary confinement. And it changes everything." Sasha Bronner, Huffington Post, September 2, 2015

Bronner's article is an inspiring account of the power of words to change lives, whether encountered in a traditional classroom or in a jail cell.  

Imprisoned at sixteen after perpetrating a carjacking in Virginia, sixteen year old Reginald Dwayne Betts sought to rise above his circumstances by drawing on the most powerful tool he could get his hands on--books.  Betts read novelists such as James Baldwin and Ernest Gaines, John Steinbeck and Charles Dickens; he read philosophers Frantz Fanon and Max Weber, and poets including Etheridge Knight, Amiri Baraka and Lucille Clifton.

It was Betts' introduction to Dudley Randall's anthology, The Black Poets, that first convinced Betts that he wanted to be a poet. “...I had never thought about poetry as a way to communicate. I never thought about it as a way to talk about things other than love,” Betts said. He published two poems while he was in prison, followed by his first book, Rashid Reads His Own Palm, an eponymous reference to the Islamic name he adopted while in prison. .

A new book of his poems, Bastards of the Reagan Era (Four Way) will be released later this month. In these poems, Betts reflects on Black men who were displaced in the community during the 1980's by the devastating invasion of crack cocaine, increased imprisonment and death:  “the sound that comes from all / the hurt & want that leads a man to turn his back to the world.” The title, Betts says, “captures all that was lost and all that disintegrated in the chaos of drug laws and violence in the 1980s.”

After leaving prison, Betts earned his undergraduate degree and an MFA degree  He is currently completing his law degree at Yale University. 

Through his writing and his legal training, Betts is concerned with making an intervention for Black boys and men whose futures are still at risk as a result of failed social policies of the past.

Read Sasah Bronner's full story, "Yes, One Book Can Change Your Life, Even In Prison," at

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Maya Angelou: giving birth to all of our brightnesses

When looking for two frustratingly lost books this morning, I came across this random assembly of titles on a shelf:  I read in their titles a tribute to the largess of Sistah Maya, who eloquently in her speech and posture, testimony and poems, was our dark symphony; a courageous chronicler of the brackish and briny currents of her own life, yet a messenger giving birth to all of our brightnesses; a fierce friend, we pray who is resting now adorned in the neatly fitted wings she desired and golden slippers.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Ella Baker biography by Ransby is insightful

Enjoying Barbara Ransby's biography of civil rights activist, Ella Baker--Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (The University of North Carolina Press, 2003)

Barbara Ransby's analysis of the conditions that shaped Ella Baker's formative years during the early decades of the 20th century in rural North Carolina is compelling reading--Baker's family members were landowners which afforded them economic stability (her maternal grandfather Mitchell Ross owned land); they practiced charitable activities that a measure of financial security allowed them to act upon and that reflected their Christian values (Mitchell Ross was also an influential preacher); the overall adherence to mutual aid practiced by the community of Christian men and women who were Baker's neighbors, underscored their dedication to uplift the disadvantaged tenant farmer class of Black people, and especially impressive to me is Ransby's explanation of the tradition of mutual aid  that the Black Baptist women auxiliaries performed in Baker's northeastern region of North Carolina (and presumably throughout the South), providing food and childcare, assisting the sick, sharing farming equipment and labor, when necessary.

These conditions were a foundation upon which Baker's later organizing and advocacy for social justice were built; Ransby says:

"[Baker] eventually adopted the notion that the more privileged, educated, and articulate members of the African American community were not only duty-bound to come to the aid of their less fortunate brothers and sisters, but also had to humble themselves in order to create the social space necessary for the more oppressed people in the community to speak and act on their own behalf. Ella Baker built on, but moved beyond, the religious teachings of her youth.  The values of charitable giving, sacrifice, and communalism that she internalized as a child became a part of her more secular world view as an adult. She ultimately identified with the plight of the poor and the working class, not as a gesture of Christian charity, but as an act of political solidarity. The choices she made over the course of her life distanced her from her relatively advantaged class background and merged her own consciousness and material self-interest with the concerns of the have-nots. In economic terms, she 'eked out an existence' most of her adult life" (44-45).

Sunday, August 11, 2013

End of summer reads and beyond in 2013

Currently reading Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision by Barbara Ransby (has stimulated my interest in the helping tradition practiced by Black Baptist women in North Carolina); On Ethnography by Shirley Brice Heath (absorbing methods of ethnographic study); First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America's First Black Public High School  by Alison Stewart (of imminent appeal to my interest in Black educators, schools and curriculum). End of summer reading list includes a first read of African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920 by Rosalyn Terborg-Penn and these re-reads: Beloved by Toni Morrison; The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson, and later in the year, a recurring read of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Samuel Langhorne Clemens. And you?

Sunday, June 23, 2013

We have waited too long for our freedom - Nelson Mandela's speech on his release from prison

South African President Nelson Mandela challenged and helped to set in motion the dismantling of the dehumanizing system of apartheid through his unwavering devotion to liberation for Black people. His life is an example of the impact that one determined soul can make on world events, whether waiting as he did for 27 years imprisoned or stepping into freedom and onto the world stage before a worldwide audience on February 11, 1990.

Text of Nelson Mandela's speech: "We have waited too long for our freedom"

AbcNews report, Feb. 11, 1990:

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Vital vanguard, wonderful warriors: Marcus Books and Black Classic Press

Marcus Books, the legendary Black book store that for more than 50 years has been the intellectual heart of African American life in the Fillmore district in San Francisco, is facing a forced eviction -- or may have already been evicted -- as announced in a San Francisco Examiner article, "Marcus Books on the brink of closure"  (June 9).

The Victorian residence at 1712 Fillmore St. that Marcus has occupied for years was purchased, and the new owners had an eviction notice issued to the store with a deadline to leave by the end of this week.

I haven't found an update on any action taken following the eviction deadline this week: Color of Change had a petition soliciting support for the Marcus Books at

Stay tuned, or please share an update if you know what's going on now.

Even as the disheartening news of Marcus Books' crisis circulates, there is uplifting news about another Black book business that is surviving, even thriving.

An article in Publishers Weekly recently announced that Black Classic Press founded by publisher Paul Coates in Baltimore is celebrating its 35th anniversary with a series of events that included a book signing by Walter Mosley.

Congrats to you, Paul, and Black Classic Press on your 35th anniversary!

Academic institutions, k-12 and higher education institutions, do not adequately integrate narratives that highlight the presence and influence of people of African descent in Western culture and in world history. Black authors, Black publishers and Black book store owners are the vital vanguard, the wonderful warriors, who arm the community with knowledge that affirms our humanity and debunks myths and lies about our history.   

The longevity that Marcus Books and Black Classic Press have accrued in the struggle is quantifiable and worthy of honor, but the real achievement of both institutions is their success in fostering self-realization and self-determination among Black people, and the impact of that achievement is immeasurable.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The local bookstore you save must be your own

White Over Black by
Wintjrop Jrodan
Stories abound in the media including on this blog about the closing of beloved bookstores around the country, both corporate and independent. The most recent news that circulated widely in the media concerning African American books was Hue-Man Bookstore. the ten-year
old Black bookstore in Harlem which closed at the end of July.

Hue-Man opened its doors with an attractive range of titles by Black authors on its shelves; I remember my first visit to the store, seeing a deep selection of African world history titles, by Dr. ben Jochanan and J.A. Rogers, for instance, as well as titles by contemporary Black authors such as Benilde Little, Mary Monroe (no relation -- I don't think!) and Pearl Cleage.

Hue-Man's selecton was impressive, but increasingly trends in the bookselling business 
required more than just good books to sustain walk-in customers, ironically enough. Many
brick-and-mortars bookstores, including Hue-Man, adapted their marketing
strategies in order to increase walk-in traffic, or at least sustain their local and
devoted customer bases, which nonetheless were being drained by competitive online sellers.

The economic collapse that hit the U.S. in 2008 only steepened the slope that bookstores
(nearly all commercial entities) had to climb in order to survive, let alone thrive.

Independent bookstores adopted new strategies to sustain themselves: expanding their product
base, (products and/or adding eateries), hosting (more) author events, specializing in a
genre, even adding online selling, but like Hue-Man, many of these stores still closed
their doors.

So, what does it take in the current digital media environment for brick-and-mortar
bookstores to be able to serve their communities and be profitable?

A mix of the some of the strategies named above and as many as are effective in a local
community of readers. That's the other part, though--a community of readers has to be
committed to the bookstore culture. Readers have to want the bookstore culture, like the
bookstore culture, and be willing "to do bookstore culture," which means to take the walk or
15 minute ride to the store. Like we used to do and spend time and money there.

I am not chastising, but merely saying that the online selling industry has nearly
perfected the means that readers get books by delivering them directly to our doors. Can
it be that part of the answer to how bookstores survive is that readers collaborate with
many new ways to keep bookstore open, useful to the community and profitable?

In the last three weeks I have collaborated with a local bookstore, blackPrint Bookstore in New Haven, holding informal discussions around a civic curricula my sister and I created that has our group reading the U.S. Constitution and other founding documents of our country. Quite a rich discussion to have in a store filled with African-centered books and images. The discussion is enriched by the surroundings, and the events bring new visitors to the store and expand its branding as a venue for learning.

Holding a reading group in a bookstore, I know, is not new, but it is a way that I can commit to support my local bookstore, even as I pursue my own online bookselling.

The Huffington Post published an article that suggests 20+ ideas a bookstore/ community can
adopt to sustain its local bookstore, among them some very good ideas. Let me know, let
everyone know, if you recommend these to your local bookstore and if the store owners implement them, how things work out.

Revised July 11, 2013