As a Professor at Bowie State University, one of the great fringe benefits of my job is the ability to poll my students. At 39, though I still think I am hip-I am about a generation away from these students. I lecture, stare into their eyes and listen to their questions, complaints, and musings. They are brilliant and explosive, positive and negative.
The question was posed to them, how many of them had grown up on a diet of African American books as children. Surprisingly, most of them had read few if any African American children’s books. As the former owner of an African American bookstore, I found this amazing. For 15 years I worked in a place full of African American children’s books. My own children read extensively in and out of the African American genre, but I still cannot imagine them without Black children’s books.
Yet, if I return to my own experience it was the Hardy Boys, the choose your own mysteries and my all-time favorite-Charlie Brown which helps me transcend the tiny neighborhood I lived in. There was also the Bible, which had the inserts full of white folks which captured my imagination. To think the tiny boy, David, could defeat Goliath. I was down with that. I was small, I loved the underdog, I wanted to win, anything was possible with the power of God.
Reading was visual, defying gravity- my imagination was activated and free.
Something about selling books to African Americans stomped on that part of my brain. The path to the imagination became trampled like the grass pathway leading to the store. Listening to African Americans with $100 sneakers complain about a $15 book for their children made me grow leery of what it meant to read.
The problem, the crux of the matter centered on the business model. Those people who often teetered on the edge of hating books were our customers. Trick them into reading-use the books of Patti Labelle, the 50 Cent Autobiography ghost written by corporate agents eager to capitalize on his career. Take the story and create new drama, rivaling t.v., the soap operas and the gangster sopranos.
We are as American as everyone else here. Within the Free Black Space of the bookstore, it became clear that there were few places where we truly engaged the landscape of Black thought. My customers were confronting literature and ideas everytime they decided to make a purchase. The great consumer freedom the weight of the country rest upon was the primary motivator in the process. What we wanted was the crux of our success and we voted in mass.
Our history is not relevant. The sales report tells me so. We must break it down so folks can understand. “Too much of the language is academic.” “Too much of the subject matter is not presented in a relevant way.” While I attempt to be sensitive to these considerations, I still question what great woman has ever locked themselves out of knowledge because it wasn’t relevant. It seems the goal is to make it relevant. The illusion of separation is perhaps the greatest of the human experience.
Yet, the absence of children’s books with images reflecting African American ethnicity helps to create separation between the reader and the ideas. Yet, I can’t remember feeling that way, locked out of knowledge as a child. Perhaps it is the need for entertainment that has taken control of us. Or perhaps there is no such thing as being locked out of knowledge by relevancy.
Yet, we encode knowledge on a variety of levels. Obviously, if you have never seen a picture of Black Folks in books that may lead you to believe Black Folks don’t belong in books; don’t read or that books are not relevant to your pursuit of knowledge. To tell the truth, I can’t remember that thought or feeling that way. I loved books, the library and there are countless others out there who I am sure to have had the same experience.
In spite of my personal experience, there still should Black Books for Black kids. My children have been blessed with them along with hundreds of thousands of others.
Free Black Space is a blog owned by Bro. Yao aka Hoke S. Glover III, a poet, teacher, and former owner of Karibu Books. His work has centered on issues of literacy and the promotion of reading in the African American and larger community. He is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Bowie State University. His poetry and/or essays have been published in African American Review, Obsidian III, Tidal Basin Review, Smartish Pace, Beltway Quarterly, Specter, Libations, Ploughshares, and other journals and anthologies. He has recorded with Black Notes, Sunny Sumter and is currently working with a musician group Free Black Space.