“Everybody was at home sitting down for months … Then what happened? The George Floyd murder happened,” said Michael Dexter George, a Tobagonian-American bookstore owner in Newark. “We were all at home. White America saw something that Black people have been going through for years.”
As the coronavirus pandemic keeps many from attending in-person protests against anti-Black racism, other forms of allyship have taken on new importance. Though just one part of anti-racist activism, reading Black authors and supporting Black-owned bookstores have allowed people across the nation to engage more deeply with the movement.
From student organizers and alumni activists to nearby bookstores, many in the University community are incorporating reading into their activism.
Mobilization in the Bubble
The Undergraduate Student Government’s (USG) Anti-Racism Book Initiative provided over 1,000 free ebooks to students in June and organized a forthcoming book talk with the authors, Chair of the Department of African American Studies (AAS) Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. GS ’97 and AAS professor Imani Perry.
This initiative is just one of many student efforts underway to elevate anti-racist literature in the Princeton area.
In early June, Lauren Johnson ’21 and Ashley Hodges ’21 put together an Anti-Racist Reading List and shared it with friends on their Instagram stories. The publicly accessible spreadsheet includes over 70 nonfiction and fiction texts on topics such as critical race studies, prison/police abolition, Black feminist theory, and revolutionary thought.
Throughout June, the list was widely shared across the University community, including in emails from administrators and numerous student groups. Johnson and Hodges, along with fellow AAS concentrators Erica Dugué ’21 and Masha Miura ’21, also worked with USG to advise the Anti-Racism Book Initiative.
Though both Johnson and Hodges were happy to see their work spark discussions across the University community, they originally conceived the list as a starting point for people without access to Princeton’s resources.
“When I thought about it in the beginning, a bigger goal for me was taking the knowledge I’ve taken from [the Department of African American Studies] and sharing it outside the Princeton community,” Johnson said.
“Because we do have the privilege of being university students, I wanted to make sure that that privilege wasn’t being siloed,” Hodges added.
With this mission in mind, Johnson and Hodges included links to PDFs of many items on the list, improving accessibility for those who otherwise could not afford or access these books. At the same time, they urged those with the means to do so to purchase the titles on the list, ideally from Black-owned bookstores.
“Purchasing books is particularly important to affluent readers because black writers seriously should not be educating these privileged individuals for free,” Johnson wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’
Source(s) of Knowledge
There are just two Black-owned bookstores in New Jersey: Source of Knowledge, in Newark, and La Unique, in Camden. Though both have been community hubs for years — Source of Knowledge was founded in 1998 and La Unique in 1992 — such stores are disappearing nationwide. According to the African American Literature Book Club, there were just 54 independent, Black-owned bookstores in the US as of 2014, down by about 50 percent since 2012.
Though the U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy calculated that the overall number of Black-owned businesses grew 34 percent nationwide between 2007 and 2012, Black business owners continue to face systemic barriers to long-term success. An economy that forces small businesses into competition with powerful corporations has only exacerbated decades of discriminatory lending practices, political repression of Black bookstores, gentrification, and low generational wealth in minority communities.
Michael Dexter George, who founded Source of Knowledge with business partners Masani Barnwell and Patrice McKinney, said the store has been able to survive in part because they own their own building. Even so, the team has suffered many of the same setbacks other Black business owners face.
“They put me through the hoops,” George said, recalling the day a bank rejected his loan application for the store. “And when I walked out there, my heart was so dropped with the system. It was so hurtful. Up to today, I could never forget. I’m afraid to go to a bank — all they would tell us is no.”
Black business owners often encounter racist banking practices known as redlining, in which lenders deny services such as loans to communities of color. Not only are Black and Latino borrowers denied loans at higher rates, but also they are asked for more detailed financial documentation than white borrowers. A 2016 study at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research found that just 1 percent of Black business owners obtain a bank loan within a year of opening. The number for white owners is 7 percent.
These disparities have even more dire consequences during the pandemic, as most approved lenders in the government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) favor their existing customers, compounding the challenges for Black business owners. An estimated 41 percent of Black-owned businesses have permanently closed due to the pandemic, compared to 17 percent of white-owned businesses.
When Source of Knowledge was forced to close for three months due to the coronavirus pandemic, the bookshop’s team started a GoFundMe to pay the bills after they were unable to obtain a PPP loan. As of writing, they have raised over $65,000 from 1,200 different donors.
While these funds have helped Source of Knowledge weather the pandemic so far, the owners emphasized that the American economy must undergo structural change to help Black-owned businesses succeed in the long term.
“If we don’t begin to speak about concrete solutions, then we will be right back like it was before, and that’s what I’m afraid of,” George said. “We have to talk about the economic disparity that goes on in the Black community. We would go and spend billions of dollars with white America, but they do not reciprocate — they don’t come and buy from us.”
Though many white people have become more aware of and vocal about these economic disparities since anti-racist protests captured national attention this summer, Black-owned businesses such as Source of Knowledge have been working for years to provide resources for underserved members of the Newark community.
Even when finances are tight, the owners regularly set aside boxes of books to give away in the local community. Once or twice a year, for example, the staff organizes an event called Read and Feed, in which they invite children into the store for in-person readings from authors, free food from local restaurants, and free books.
“My goal is to make sure every child in the city of Newark and New Jersey has a book in their hand that’s like them, that talks about our history — their history — and that helps improve their self-esteem, so they feel proud, and know they come from a people that have accomplished many things,” Barnwell said.
“Not only African people need to know about African culture, Europeans also need to learn about other cultures,” George added. “If our history was in the school curriculum, then the world would have been a better place today.”
Reconsidering how we educate
This commitment to education resonates within the University community, including with Johnson.
“The coolest and most important part [of the response to the Anti-Racist Reading List] was that students were asking if they could share it with their high schools, which felt really integral to me, since there are really serious curriculum changes that need to happen at the K-12 level,” Johnson said.
Unlike with math and reading, states are not required to meet any minimum standards for teaching social studies or history, which often results in curricula that minimize Black history, ranging from the incomplete to the flat out wrong. Lessons about Black leaders and creators are often limited to Black History Month, relegating their stories to the margin in ways that tacitly reinforce narratives of white supremacy.
Even before children start school, they absorb anti-Black messages through stories as seemingly benign as “The Ugly Duckling.”
“The duck was ugly because he was the only black duck amongst the little yellow ducks. So they chased him away. He came back the most beautiful white swan loved by all,” McKinney pointed out. “So that tells that child, when he was black he was ugly; when he turned white, he turned beautiful.”
Errors and absences in education are compounded by well-documented anti-Black bias in the publishing industry. A recent survey of the industry found that just 5 percent of workers in the publishing industry are Black; the number is just 1 percent for editorial staff, who play a crucial role in deciding which books get published. Even well-established, award-winning Black novelists are often paid advances far smaller than those unknown white authors receive for their debut books.
“For all of us in the book industry and in many other sectors, this ought to be a moment of humility and self-critique,” wrote Dorothea von Moltke, owner of Labyrinth Books, in an email to The Daily Princetonian.
Labyrinth is an independent bookstore in Princeton and supplies textbooks for most of the University’s classes.
The motto of Labyrinth Books is “read… think… act,” and the store’s team has long worked to center the work of Black authors in the books the shop carries, on social media, and in online events. Most recently, Labyrinth collaborated with Haymarket Books to host conversations with Ibram X. Kendi, Glaude, and Professor Emeritus Cornel West GS ’80.
The store has seen a surge in interest in anti-racist works and books by Black authors more generally, even briefly selling out of some popular titles at the beginning of June.
“There has never been another political moment that I know of when such a wide range of people decided not just to ‘show up’ but also to ‘read up’ on all aspects of structural racism,” von Moltke wrote. “The same books that sold out at Labyrinth sold out everywhere, and all have had to go into new printings.”
Even so, the convenience and brand-recognition of massive online retailers such as Amazon have funneled a significant portion of such profits away from Black-owned businesses and into the pockets of white-owned corporations.
Turning the page on buying habits
In June, Edwin Rosales ’17 founded Turn The Page, a collective that supports Black-owned bookstores to ensure they benefit from renewed national interest in the anti-racist literature they have been promoting for decades.
Co-led by Rosales, Tyler Cruz, Maal Imani West, and Abigail Jean-Baptiste ’18, Turn The Page works with Source of Knowledge to curate bi-monthly Black Liberation Literature Collections, which readers can order from a new online storefront.
“In their beginning steps towards allyship, many Americans turned to white authors and capitalist institutions to inform them about the racial injustice Black people face in America. These actions, however, were contradictory to their intention,” notes the Turn The Page website. “You cannot be in true pursuit of Black liberation if you’re choosing to give your money to white capitalist institutions over small Black owned businesses.”
McKinney emphasized this point in a Zoom discussion between leaders of Turn The Page and Source of Knowledge hosted by the Lewis Center for the Arts on Aug. 7.
“It's so convenient when you go in Barnes and Noble or Amazon. The first thing you see is ‘Black Lives Matter,’” McKinney said. “No, it’s the dollars that matter.”
So far, in their work to change these buying habits, Turn The Page has connected with 5,000 readers in 34 states, bringing in over $25,000 in revenue for Source of Knowledge.
“White America is buying from us now — buying a lot from us. Every day they call us, and we don’t want it to stop,” George said. “This is something new to us.”
To build lasting change, though, those interviewed stressed that non-Black Americans must continue to support Black-owned businesses and educate themselves long after the current protests fade from the news.
“Decolonizing your bookshelf isn’t just about having a bunch of Black authors on that shelf,” Jean-Baptiste said. “How are you having conversations with your friends and your family about what you’re learning in this work? How is it going beyond your isolated reading experience? And how is that being integrated into your mind and into your daily practice?”
“This fight is going to be years long,” Hodges said. “So I wouldn’t advise anyone to just read the whole list [of anti-racist literature] over the summer and then have that be it, but just to really think about ways to have this be a moment that has longevity.”