Sunday, July 22, 2007

Saturday at the Harlem Book Fair: Culture and Controversy

This report by Richard Grayson first appeared on Jeff Bryant's blog Syntax of Things (go there for the original links) on Sunday, July 22, 2007:

Yesterday was a gorgeous summer day in New York City -- neither hot nor humid but sunny and breezy -- and I was one of an estimated 70,000 people attending the Harlem Book Fair, with booths and a few stages on 135th Street from Fifth Avenue to Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. (Usually my literary trips to Harlem take me to just one destination: the sublime Hue-Man Bookstore at Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 125th.)

For me, the most interesting stuff at the fair happened indoors, at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, probably the model for what a public library system can create in terms of an African-American research library. (I was living in Fort Lauderdale when the Broward County Public Library's African-American Research Library & Cultural Center opened and know the BCPL looked toward the Schomburg as an inspiration).

There were a series of panel discussions and talks in the Langston Hughes Auditorium, all of which were taped by C-SPAN and some of which should be aired sometime soon.

Especially worth catching are former U.S. Representative J.C. Watts' keynote on "the state of African-American literacy" and a dialogue between Walter Mosley and "people's historian" Howard Zinn. But I also enjoyed the 3 p.m. panel on "Publishing the Diaspora," moderated by Marie Umeh of Nigeria and John Jay College of Criminal Justice (another one of the two dozen schools where I taught).

The diaspora publishing panel featured very different -- literary, commercial, inspirational -- books and authors from Britain, Canada, South Africa, Jamaica and, well, the program said "Mexico," but I've known Felicia Luna Lemus and her fine work -- for example, this year's Like Son (Akashic Books) -- for a while and I've always associated her with Southern California and New York City.

Actually, the writer I learned about whom I most want to read is Flora Nwapa (1931-1993), the feminist Nigerian novelist and publisher, for whom a new achievement award at next year's 10th annual Book Fair will be named.

Outside and across Malcolm X Boulevard from the Schomburg, I really enjoyed the open mic poetry slam -- unlike most of the poetry readings which have gotten me to thinking about my grocery lists for the past 35 years -- where there was too much energy for my mind to wander. I'm also really impressed that anyone can memorize anything these days, let alone long poems. It was heavily hortatory, inspirational, and filled with social criticism, and frankly, I can't get enough of that stuff.

On the other hand, a little of Zane, Relentless Aaron (how can that guy park his promotional van outside the 125th St. Starbucks all day without getting towed?), and their cohorts can go a long way for me, and some folks have criticized Harlem Book Fair founder Max Rodriguez of QBR The Black Book Review for what they feel is a tilt toward the kind of urban lit I find being sold on the streets of the Fulton Street Mall in downtown Brooklyn and the shopping district on Jamaica Avenue, Queens. Since I'm happy to see anyone reading anything these days -- especially if the reader isn't wearing a wizard outfit -- I'll just link to some comments by others more qualified to discuss this:

Diary of an Anxious Black Woman:
Color me surprised to find, not my usual books about African kings and queens or the latest literary work by Danticat or even those great pamphlets spouting off on the latest "conspiracy theory" about white America's evil plots against the black race. Oh no! Instead, I passed by booth after booth, kiosk after kiosk, of the latest contemporary books known as "urban romance" or "hip hop fiction" or "street literature" with catchy titles like Down in the Dirty; Ride or Die Chick; Nothing's Wrong (written by one calling himself "Dr. M.F." with the most explicit book cover and poster of some black man's ass partially displayed with some fetishized woman's legs wrapped around him - and, yes, I chastised the author, who was there, for putting his R-rated material out there on the streets in the midst of this "family event" since he was right next to a children's books booth and the young ones were present; I couldn't help myself!); Betrayal of a Hustler; Hell to the No!; Girl from the Gutter; No Good Baby Daddy; Pimpology; Drug Dealer (soon to be a movie); Games Women Play; If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start with Your Legs: A Guide to Understanding Men; Maintaining a Keeper: A Woman's Guide to Loving and Understanding Her Man; and my personal favorite: F*cked (advertised as "the gift for all women").

I'm probably sounding quite elitist when I criticize this annual event for going overboard with their "pimps and ho's" display of street fiction, which was the predominant genre, and I know that the Black Arts Movement believed that our literature needed to reach the level of the layperson, not simply written for the upper crust in esoteric language. However, I do believe when the late Toni Cade Bambara expressed concerns for making her writing accessible to the masses who frequent book fairs on the streets, concerns for writing in a way that could be used for activism, I doubt she saw such writing as highlighting the most stereotypical depictions of "black urban life" - replete with thugs, pimps, drug dealers, gang bangers, strippers and other sex-workers.

Kyle, an editor at the long-running literary magazine (and treasure) Callaloo:
The Callaloo table seemed to serve two purposes: 1) An oasis for those displeased with the "baby-momma" (as someone described it to me) writers and 2) A sounding board for these same people, and others, to complain about Max and the book fair. Though all traffic was appreciated, I was uncomfortable with both those responses. I thought the point of the book fair, or rather its ultimate good, is that it attracted a general black readership but also exposed them to things they might not read. But the sentiment seems to be that by attracting the wrong literary element (or possibly by not cultivating another) Max has ruined the fair.

At one point, a group of white women ran up to the table and said "Finally, something black and literary . . . and historical." Now, I think anyone is entitled to make a valid point about anything, but the context . . . why would you say something like that at a black book fair, to a black person. The whole book fair is black and literary. If you don't like some of those black folks literature, don't fuck with it . . . and don't act like the literature you like is saving the race (that you might not identify with). I don't appreciate Zane's work, so I don't read it and don't talk about it. Do more thoughts or words or energies need to be given to it?

After hearing so many complaints, I just had to tell people to talk to Max or start your own book fair. I guess maybe people thought I'd be more sympathetic because it was the Callaloo table, but exhibitors don't have any sway over the shape of the book fair. They only offer what then can. I don't know if this is America or something more acute within black communities and organizations, but the channels for critical feedback are all miswired and the information never gets there or gets processed properly and little things that could be addressed (such as attendee perception of the scope of the fair) become chronic.

The Ride:
In an attempt to lure people to tables filled with books and other paraphernalia, men and women with a hustler’s energy walked around handing out colorful postcards most featuring pictures of scantily clad women.

The “literature” that graced these tables centered on the activities of licentious women and “thuggish” men who live life hard and fast on the streets and in the housing projects and tenements of urban America.

The Harlem Book Fair is a prime example of disconnect between the black middle class and those who that same middle class refer to as “them” - urban, undereducated, less refined blacks whose tastes and interests differ widely from their middle class counterparts.

. . . the postcard promoting the novel, Nothing’s Wrong by Dr. M.F. . . . features a man and woman naked and clearing engaging in sexual intercourse. We see the man’s naked rear end and woman’s legs wrapped around his torso. One of her manicured hands cups his bald head, the other rests on his muscular back. Flip the card over and the man is choking the woman, her head is back and she is clearly in pain and is struggling to free herself. There was a poster exhibiting the same on the author’s table.

If the author believes this is acceptable promotion material for the general audience of the Harlem Book Fair, (which includes children and teens) something’s wrong with him. I also find fault with Max Rodriguez, founder and organizer of the fair, who should regulate such displays.

On the subway riding back home, I did wonder what my old teacher, Daniel Mayers, who taught me what was then Afro-American Literature I and II when he was chair of Brooklyn College's Afro-American Studies Department in 1972-73 would have thought about some of the booths, but Dan was self-effacing and funny enough to probably have said something like, "You're asking a guy who smokes a pipe and did his dissertation on Alexander Pope?" Like me, he probably would be happy to see so many people interested in books and reading.

I enjoyed myself a lot and got a lot of (free) stuff and website connections to learn more from. Here's a report on the fair by Siddhartha Mitter from public radio station WNYC.

My biggest laugh came in thumbing through the pages of Geneva West's book What Do White People Really Know About Black People? "You've found us out," I told the author.

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