Black-Owned Bookstores Safeguard Our History as Racists Try to Ban It

Republican politicians are working to prohibit books that cause "white discomfort" in classrooms, so Black bookstore owners are fighting back.

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Black-Owned Bookstores Safeguard Our History as Racists Try to Ban It

During my high school slavery unit, into which the entirety of Black history was compressed, my teacher decided to play “Devil’s advocate”—his words—and ask, “Well, wasn’t slavery good for the economy?” As a teenager, I remained silent. Now, as an adult, I realize just how harmful his question was, especially in our classroom of majority Black and Brown students.

American history has always been taught this way. “The economy” in my teacher’s sentence clearly referred to white people’s economy, for Black people’s “economy” was worse than dire. To teach Black children this whitewashed version of America is to teach Black children that they are marginal characters in their own lives, to reinforce the idea that Black people cannot exist outside of the white gaze; we only exist in relation to whiteness.

If this is the state of our education system, where, then, do we go for real learning—for what bell hooks called education as the practice of freedom? If our schools are under the control of the same government responsible for treating Black learning as a fugitive act; if the curriculum teaches us to praise Founding Fathers who owned our ancestors, beating and raping them at will; if the well-intentioned white teachers who come into our inner cities through Teach for America et al. know nothing of us; if our politicians can suddenly make laws banning not just books about our real history but also any books that make white students uncomfortable—if this is the state of our education system, where do we turn? We turn, more and more, to Black-owned bookstores.

Jamaican-born Desmond A. Reid, an avid reader who went to printing school before moving to the United States, founded Dare Books 40 years ago in Longwood, Florida. “When I decided to go to my first PTA meeting, I asked the principal to show me the library,” he explained. “In a school that had mostly Black and Latino children, I noticed there were no books that reflected those children—none whatsoever that I saw.” So he took it upon himself to right the wrong. “If it is to be, it is up to me to gather and disseminate the material dealing with the contributions of Black people in this country and across the world,” he told me.

People wait in line to enter at Eso Wan on November 28, 2020 in Los Angeles. The bookstore is Black-owned, and at the height of that summer’s protests against police brutality, saw a huge spike in sales. Photo:Dania Maxwell (Getty Images)

There aren’t even 150 Black-owned bookstores in the United States, meaning they account for about 5 percent of indie bookstores, but they have always been a pillar of Black education and liberation. Our country’s first Black bookstore owner, David Ruggles, not only sold abolitionist literature but also used his New York City bookstore as a safehaven for those escaping slavery in the 1830s, before it was destroyed by a white mob. During the Black Power Movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, when Black-owned bookstores selling anti-colonialist literature and supporting Black liberation grew in popularity, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover led a nationwide attack on these businesses, calling them “propaganda outlets for revolutionary and hate publications and culture centers for extremism.”

The most recent challenges verge on existential: As politicians work to ban critical race theory (CRT) and white “discomfort” in classrooms, signaling an attack on the very core of what these bookstores are attempting to teach, bookstore owners are responding. They are ordering more copies of Derecka Purnell’s Becoming Abolitionists, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste. They are beefing up their already impressive array of speakers’ series. They are, in short, trying to keep us educated, at a time when our schools—already a place of control and suppression for many Black students—are being threatened by Republican politicians.

In a country where white power structures insist on a colonizing curriculum favoring white “heroes,” white perspectives, and white myths, Black bookstores offer a breath of fresh air: the truth.

The desire to share the truth about our people led Akbar Watson to open Pyramid Books in Boynton Beach, Florida, a decade later than and three hours south of Reid’s Dare Books, when he and his friends wanted to read independently published titles by Black authors that were hard to come by. Watson turned his small efforts buying these books wholesale and retailing them out into a full-fledged bookstore. When I asked him what types of books he sells today, he didn’t hesitate: “Pyramid Books is an African-centered bookstore. Historically, we’ve been erased out of history. What I want to do is fill in that gap and represent a people that hasn’t been represented in a positive light in the literature arena.” His bookstore’s website proudly proclaims, “Fight the Power, Read Banned Books!”—subtly reminding us that, at one point, all books were banned to Black people on these shores.

Both Reid and Watson have their work cut out for them in Florida, where Republican governor Ron DeSantis is doing his best to put chains around Black history. In December, DeSantis took the stage to introduce the Stop W.O.K.E. Act, the legislative framework for Florida’s ban on teaching CRT in public schools, as well as its prohibition on school districts and state universities hiring “woke” CRT consultants. This proposed law is vague enough to mean both everything and nothing, and will undoubtedly be used to threaten Black educators and students alike into submission. DeSantis claims these measures are necessary to “maintain and preserve a free society,” a claim which obviates Black Americans’ freedom to study their own heritage and literature.

If it is to be, it is up to me to gather and disseminate the material dealing with the contributions of Black people in this country and across the world.

Thirty-six states, including DeSantis’s, either have passed or are working to pass restrictions on education about race and bias. This anti-Blackness, cloaked in the rhetoric of freedom, is as old as Thomas Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” cognitive dissonance—pen in one hand, whip in the other—and Black bookstore owners understand the game. “The hoopla surrounding CRT is just more of the same old racism that has plagued this country since its inception,” said Cherysse Calhoun, co-owner of Marcus Books in Oakland, California. “These manifestations—banning the teaching of the country’s true history and enactment of laws to disenfranchise non-whites—are an indication of the current dangerously divisive state of the union.” Kalima DeSuze, founder of Café con Libros in Brooklyn, called the banning of CRT “one case of the most effective bamboozlements that the Republican party has deployed,” and DeShanta Hairston, founder of Books and Crannies in Virginia, where Governor Youngkin recently announced a tip line for parents to report suspicions of their children being taught CRT, said it’s “pretty obvious that they’re trying to keep our history from us.”

For many of us, and especially those of us whose ancestors were sold into slavery, it’s easy to forget that our history doesn’t begin with slavery, as the K-12 school system would so often have us believe. When I walked into Pan-African Connection Bookstore in Dallas last fall, the aisles were filled not only with African-centered books, but also traditional African masks, prints, clothing, and jewelry—all speaking to a rich ancestry unrelated to whiteness. “I want the kids in our area to know that they come from somewhere,” co-founder Akwete Tyehimba said, “because when you know where you come from, you know where you’re going.” She tells people to visit her bookstore even if they don’t buy anything; she just wants the Black community to experience what it’s like to be fully seen, fully heard, and fully loved. In her bookstore, I no longer felt like a marginal character in my own life.

I felt similarly when I gave a talk with AJ Sanders at Houston’s Kindred Stories. Sanders, a Black bookstagrammer who uses her platform to highlight BIPOC authors, helped me deconstruct the history of Black hair. Afterwards, several Black women and girls shared their own joyful (and heartbreaking) natural hair journeys. For me, this was a reminder that part of Black liberation is having the right to tell our own stories, whether it’s the stories of our ancestors or of our personal lives. DeSuze credited Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns with teaching her about the Great Migration of African Americans, for example—“not a truncated version, not a revised version, not a sanitized version.” Hairston, too, said reading books by Black authors helped her understand a more “accurate depiction of the history of slavery and enslaved people” than what she learned in school.

A patron browses in the children’s book section at Frugal Bookstore in Boston in November 2020. Frugal Bookstore, the only Black-owned bookshop in Boston, received an outpouring of support amid nationwide protests against racism and police brutality. Photo:Boston Globe (Getty Images)

The Houston event, organized by and almost exclusively attended by Black women, felt like a glimpse of hope: In this Black-owned bookstore, Black people were centered. I was so comfortable I nearly forgot I was in a state that recently had banned the teaching of slavery and racism as “anything other than deviations from … the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.” Two hundred and fifty years of slavery, reduced to a minor stain for the comfort of white people.

Thus it is that DeSantis, who wants parents to sue schools and employees to sue employers where CRT is being taught, believes those who support “wokeism” want not justice but “to tear at the fabric of our society.” Reid of Dare Books pushed back. “We’re not trying to spread hate of anyone,” he insisted. “We’re trying to spread understanding.” For Black people, the fabric of this country was woven together with our unpaid labor; if we were to squeeze the quilt of the United States, we’d all find ourselves drenched in blood. Yet, if our country wants to heal from its blood-stained past, we have no other choice but to acknowledge it. To acknowledge it, we must first read about it. And to read about it, we need Black-owned bookstores curating this material.

Black-owned bookstores continue to face considerable odds. Despite helping to push the narrative forward during the BLM protests of 2020—when Black bookstores went from selling a few books a day to suddenly handling orders of 100, 200, or even thousands of books centering the Black experience and anti-racism—there’s no guarantee they will survive to continue their mission. Just five years ago, in 2017, the FBI listed “Black identity extremists” as a direct threat to domestic security, echoing the FBI’s definition of “Black nationalist hate groups” under Hoover, which targeted Black leaders, Black organizations, and, of course, Black bookstores. As history so often repeats itself, we have to be vigilant against Black-owned bookstores becoming targets once again. After all, their popularity has reached a new high during a time of deep disruption. Recently, in what he suspects was a collaborated effort with the people responsible for sending bomb threats to HBCUs at the start of Black History Month, Watson and his study group were “Zoom bombed” while reading Amos Wilson’s Blueprint for Black Power.

In spite of this, Watson believes the truth in the books on his shelves will, hopefully, one day tip the scales toward a more honest future. Calhoun, too, insists “Marcus Books will stay the course” as it uplifts the Black community.

I Want the kids in our area to know that they come from somewhere, because when you know where you come from, you know where you’re going.

As racist rhetoric rips through the U.S., more teachers are becoming fearful about and frankly legally liable for teaching us our heritage. And Black-owned bookstores are yet again rising up and taking on the role of educator. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped, and Nikole Hannah-Jones’s The 1619 Project have all been banned in certain school districts, which, plot twist, has resulted in an even higher demand for these books. As Hairston explained, “Anytime you ban a book, it does pique interest as to why this specific book is being banned.” These are titles you will find on the shelves of Black-owned bookstores. They give us an alternative education about what it is to be Black in America. They nourish our intellect and our souls, strengthen our connection to our homeland, and remind us, always, that we have a history—and a future—in this world and the next.

I missed this in my own K-12 education, but Black-owned, African-centered bookstores erased the lies I was told and filled in the truths I wasn’t. That work will become even more important as schools across America invisibilize the real story of this country.

St. Clair Detrick-Jules, author of “My Beautiful Black Hair: 101 Natural Hair Stories from the Sisterhood,” is an award-winning filmmaker, photographer, and natural hair activist. Her work has been featured in Allure Magazine, The Washington Post, and BuzzFeed News, among others.

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