On July 19 the fourth annual Harlem Book Fair brought together a multicultural melange of vendors and noteworthy African American literati, including Sonia Sanchez, Kevin Powell, and Albert Murray. More than 18,000 bookworms, book vendors, and literary schmoozers gathered for the two-day outdoor event, which included readings, book displays, and panel discussions. The panels provided a place to exchange ideas and critique serious issues in the African American literary world—everything from “The Black Body as Commercial Fiction” to “New Jamaican Writing: The Post-Independence Generation.” These panels were the heart of the fair and many were standing room only.
“Independent Voices: African-American Publishing out of the Mainstream” addressed the question of why African American book sales flourish while independent African American publishers continue to struggle. Panelists such as Paul W. Coates, the publisher of Black Classic Press, and Cornelius Eady, co-creator of the poetry foundation Cave Canem, agreed that the infectious spread of superstores and, since September, the unstable economy have increased the difficulty of getting African American books into the community.
But Crystal Bob-Semple, owner of Brownstone Books in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, who missed the panel due to subway delays caused by the Con Ed explosion, was optimistic about the future of small, independent bookstores like hers. In an interview afterward, Bob-Semple noted that despite the financial ups and downs, she believes a secure future exists for indies because “you don’t want to hear [black] stories through someone else’s [white] interpretation.” She offered as proof that her “customers are very supportive when their needs are being met.”
However, Haki Madhubuti, Third World Press publisher and poet, who spoke on the panel “Blackspeak: Visionary Writers on the Future of America,” placed more emphasis on race as a major factor in African American publishing woes. He stated that “we have to understand white businessmen have privileges in white America” and as a result independent black publishers have difficulty accessing capital. But it’s not just the economy or the white man that’s crushing the indies—the African American community needs to give stronger support. Madhubuti affirmed this, saying, “Black people and what happens in America is dependent on us and our motivation to change our reality.”
Throughout the two days, there were people swappin’ business cards, poets droppin’ science on the mic and drillin’ to the root of problems. Ultimately, the Harlem Book Fair helped people forge ahead with one collective cause in mind—to further African American literary culture.