Monday, April 17, 2017

For Black Diaspora Reading Aficionados, There's No Place Like Home: Sister's Uptown Bookstore.

Proud to be feted by the only Black-owned bookstore in Manhattan
I still fancy myself as international, although I haven't travelled overseas in over 15 years. I traded in my passport for being my mother's caregiver. I miss the sights and smells of traveling overseas. Moreover, I miss the freedom of More free than in my own native country. I have lived in the Philippines and Thailand, traveled to Brazil, Jamaica, and Nigeria, and can say that I felt more secure and at home in all of those places than in my own USA.

Pitiful, but true.

Now, I know there's some falsity in my assertions because, when I traveled, I was perceived as a regular American. Here, not so much. Also, I had money to spend, and the color green seemed to overwhelm any trepidation people may have had about my brown-colored skin. So, in many ways, although I didn't look like a white Tammy-tourist, I was still "the other". But no one seemed to make a big deal about it.

I felt comfortable even in England, where I lived for a year as an Atlantic Fellow in Public Policy, although I didn't escape from being noticed by one drunkard at a formal dinner who slurred loudly enough for me to hear him say to a man next to him,"What is that?" referring to me. I guess my neatly twisted hair made me seem other-worldly to his jaundiced, inebriated eyes.

That question should have been my retort about him, however, as he looked like a W.C. Field's caricature, with his pregnant belly and his toupee askew. He was quite comical. I pretended not to hear because I didn't want to embarrass the man who received the remark, and who, shocked, immediately made an overt gesture to speak with me as a social balm to deflect the perceived wound his uncouth colleague had attempted to inflict upon me.

But I heard him. We hear it all the time.  Black people don't need supersonic ears to hear the insults lobbied about us over our heads. We catch them so quickly because we must be alert wherever we are...because we are hated, pilloried, envied, and shunned for being Black, enslaved, then freed (kinda sorta).

But I digress.

What I really want to talk about is where Black people can go to find their own safe places. One of them is Sister's Uptown Bookstore and Cultural Center, in Manhattan, New York.

Book-lovers at Black-owned Sister's Uptown Bookstore
Ironically, it was a White book buyer and writer Kurt Thometz (who was introduced to me via word-of-mouth - "call him and he'll tell you who is who, etc.") who told me about them, as I am generally a stranger to everyplace in New York except Times Square, where my sister lives. I only know Harlem to walk down the street and to visit Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.  Blvd., searching for the Juice Bar when it was there. It was a place where you could get vegetarian soul food. I'm no vegan, but I loved going there (it moved to a different location, but wasn't the same, but I hope it's still doing business). After living for 15 years in New Hampshire, feeling almost a foreigner to Black environments, I just liked hanging out on the street, talking to the vendors to get my dose of Blackness. A recharge of sorts.

A family for our Family of book lovers
Have you ever slipped into a warm, heated towel after a shower or bath, and wanted to stay in it, forever?

Or, have you ever felt like Cinderella when she actually fits the magic slipper to wed the prince?

That's Sister's Uptown Books.

It is an oasis.

It is heaven on earth.

It is your grandmother's sofa and hot corn bread that never gets cold.

It is mother Africa hugging you to her bosom.

It will put you in a place where you feel safe and secure. Without prickly safety pins.

It's just...home.  It touts as much, as it's not only a bookstore. It's a community center. A cultural home.  And the fact that it embraces not just Blackness but Black literature makes it one of the most important places on the planet for me.

The owner and manager are a mother and daughter team, Janifer and Kori, who receive you with open arms, something we are not always open to doing as a people, as we have been taught to guard each other with suspicion, like the slave masters taught our slave ancestors, and as some of us still unconsciously do.

My book, "Severed, a novel" had been named as a finalist in first-fiction for the Phyllis Wheatley BookAward at the Harlem Book Fair, and I traveled during the award-ceremony weekend with copies of my novel, which Janifer and Kori accepted without reservation. The few independent stores I've approached locally have loved the cover, as it is quite professional (thank you, Ingram Spark), if just a tad difficult to place by genre. It is a mystery that I hope is part-literary, so it's difficult to typecast, and to sell for that, matter.

But Sister's accepted 7 paperbacks on the spot. When they called a couple of months later and said they needed more copies, I was ecstatic, of course. And when I was invited to speak about my novel over Thanksgiving weekend to their book club members, I was even more overjoyed.

The book club members are extremely well-read critical-thinkers: my favorite audience. They were rapt at attention, ingested my story, and gave me their own insights into the novel. They were the audience I have waited for my whole life: intelligent, they love and support their race. My novel is not an easy read. There's a lot of information to digest. That these readers embraced it so gleefully was worth the fifteen years it took to write it.

Kori - committed to the cause of Sister's
Sister's is the only Black-owned bookstore in Manhattan and is only one out of 54 in the country, down from 400. Our bookstores are dying out, as Black Americans become consumers without a conscience. Like most Americans, they "want-it-now" and "want it easy," which supersedes the thoughtfulness of helping another Black business. We seem to owe allegiance only to our desires. The problem is that we don't realize how we are destroying our history and legacy, which, according to Janifer, fits easily into America's system. We will become obsolete, by design, as our history and contributions to the country diminish.

Sister's Uptown Books is trying to take things to the next level, for people to understand that supporting Black businesses, and writers, in particular, is as necessary as keeping our race alive.

We Blacks must find our own safe places; we need not look for well-meaning Whites to provide them for us. We must create them ourselves. Sister's Uptown Bookstore and Cultural Center is one such place. Never forget that during slavery, slaves could be killed for learning to read. And American history is continually being doctored, with current textbook efforts to dilute history by saying that enslaved Africans were "migrant workers" to the U.S. (SMH) But shaking our heads isn't enough.

Sister's Preparing for Future Readers
Janifer explains our current mindset: "Why is it that it's left out of our equation to support our own? We don't care who we purchase from... it doesn't matter if it's a Black owned business."  Her store is determined to change that behavior: "It's not just consuming.... we need to think, too... or we will become extinct. We don't get it. It started so long back. We think if we emulate what others have, we've arrived. When that's gone, you have nothing." She mentioned the climate change misfortunes that have created mudslides, Katrina, and other catastrophic incidents. "What do you have if [those possessions] are gone?" She talks about our forbears, when they die and "go to the other side" without time to tell us that our legacy must be kept alive, after our purchases, that we covet so much, are gone.

Janifer and Kori's goal is to "take the chains off our brains, the same ones that used to be on our (ancestors') wrists and ankles." She continues: "My premise is to find a way to work with our minds." It isn't her goal to just sell a book. "It's not just have someone buy from me, but to help each of us get out of survival mode to free our spirits up... that's what we came here to do."
"I was looking at Hidden Figures (about the Black female), mathematicians helping the U.S.)  get to the moon. There's nothing we haven't done. But if we don't read., (we'll) never
know." And most of our stories are not made into movies. When Janifer decided to open her business, people murmured that she wouldn't make it, because Black people don't read.  Seventeen years later, "Sister's" is still around.  Janifer is also grateful for Troy Johnson of African American Literature Book Club, who suggested that Sister's Uptown Bookstore sponsor the Medgar Evers National Black Writer's Conference.

The colors of Sister's are vibrant like its patrons
The Cultural side of Sister's Uptown Books
Janifer says Black Americans have survived everything. "Ain't no way... we're no weak people." But she aims to inculcate in everyone who visits her store that we need to take it to the next dimension: to reverse our thought processes. "I'm in observation mode. I ask the creator to open the way and reveal to me how to help. Send more people who are awake. We're going to get it. This is our time. I believe that if I just continue to hold on and hold out... it will be revealed".

We must find our places.  We must find an underground railroad for Blacks, by Blacks; not to fight the power, but to rest.  To rejuvenate.  The diaspora needs a divan.

As the nation continues to gentrify and Blacks get pushed into the margins of the cities in which we live, we must go out of our way to support Black institutions like Sister's Uptown Books.

"More brothers are coming now. They're hungry for the information." Citing the books they're leafing through and buying: the Black Marxist, the story of Assata: Assata Shakur's biography, and books like A Taste of Power, Blacks Against Empire...these enlightened brothers want to support the store. Even ones who haven't opened a book in 5 to 10 years are asking for help in being re-introduced to reading. These new avid readers are Janifer's "consolation." "Those folk. More and more sisters are coming with book clubs.  Janifer became even more excited as she talked about the new clientele making themselves known.

"So that's it. That's my freedom, to see people hungry for knowledge." Sometimes she can't even sleep she's so excited. She puts books out in front of her store for free. Just to get people reading again. When they open her store's door to confirm the price, she tells them, "Sure it's free. But come back to me when you're done reading the book and let's talk about what you read."

Make your pilgrimage to Blackness in all of its greatness when you go to Sister's Uptown Bookstore and Cultural Center in Harlem. And buy a book (or two, or three, or four....), or even arts and crafts (there's lovely hand-crafted artwork there, too).

I'm so glad that Sister's was revealed to me.  I'm grateful for Sister's Uptown Books for embracing my novel, but, more importantly, for embracing our people. In all of our diversity. Blacks in the diaspora have traveled the world, but few places in America truly feel like home.  Count Sister's as one of them.


Speakout08 said...

Great review of a conscious business for conscious people.

Speakout08 said...

Congratulations on finding a home for our novel Severed, an intriguing read full of hidden subtexts for people who are aware.

VL Towler said...

Thanks so much for your kind words. I hope people go out of their way to visit.

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