Toting Weapons of Mass Empowerment
When I was in college in the heady Black Power-African Liberation days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, we used to complain that black people just did not read�not about our history and culture; not our very true-to-life fiction; and certainly not about "the revolution" taking place at the time. "If you want to hide something from black people, put it in a book," we chorused. An unread people were an uninformed people, therefore fair game for "the oppressor." We weren't talking about college cognoscenti like ourselves, of course. We were talking about the masses�especially our age peers�who were busy making their own deals with life beyond the college campus.
Today, thankfully, our grousing appears to have run its course. In the July/August issue of TNJ, we carried a story describing a new genre of literature, dubbed "ghetto" or "street life" literature, that is so popular among black youth that even the most staid publishing houses are signing authors of these books with six-figure advances. At the Harlem Book Fair in July, I was struck not only by the number of young people browsing and buying books of every genre but also by the number of young writers promoting their own works.
Perhaps the most telling sign that blacks not only are reading more but crave the writings of their own authors was the launch at the Harlem Book Fair of a partnership between the Archie Givens Sr. Collection of African American Literature (www.givens.org), one of the country's leading collections of black literature, and publisher Simon & Schuster Inc.'s Atria Books division. A remarkable development, mused Malaika Adero, senior editor at Atria, considering that big commercial publishing concerns like S&S do not undertake ventures involving work one expects from a university press. Given what it knew about black reading trends, S&S clearly saw the business sense in this unprecedented move. Atria now will reissue titles from the Givens Collection, beginning with Frederick Douglass's My Bondage and My Freedom, Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Oscar Micheaux's The Conquest.
Housed at the University of Minnesota and passionately overseen by faculty scholar John Wright, the Archie Givens Sr. Collection contains some 9,000 items dating from the late 18th century to the present. It includes novels, poetry, plays, short stories, essays, literary manuscripts and criticism, playbills, correspondence, pamphlets, photographs, periodicals, audio-visual media and biographies, and covers such grand literary periods as the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement.
All this reading coincides with growing enrollment among blacks and other minorities in distance learning and continuing education courses, a trend we examine in this issue of TNJ. We also take a close look at former Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, who wanted Americans to be properly educated about the circumstances of September 11, 2001, and lost her seat trying to make that happen.
Reading and education are weapons of mass empowerment. We are overjoyed that more African Americans are toting them.
By Rosalind McLymont