When people talk about African American literature, they often mention individual writers and their achievements. That makes sense. However, it's possible and really sometimes necessary to talk about black book culture, which leads us to talking about writers and their publications, but also to the communities that facilitate the widespread circulation of books or how study groups, reading groups, and different gatherings of people discuss various authors and their writings.
The history of black book culture is the history of black folks channeling their economic and intellectual powers. It’s the history of black bookstores, and the "African American section" at white bookstores. It’s the extended processes of people establishing personal libraries of 10 then 30 and then more than 300 black books.
Let’s remember that the notion of black book culture precedes the thing we call "African American literature" and "black literature courses." And even before the emergence of large numbers of black books, black folks were still involved with books and book culture in ways that were distinctly African American. For instance, the author Richard Wright was growing up in the Jim Crow South where African Americans were not allowed access the library, so he came up with a clever plan, as he discussed in an autobiographical sketch:
For example, it was almost impossible to get a book to read. It was assumed that after a Negro had imbibed what scanty schooling the state furnished he had no further need for books. I was always borrowing books from men on the job. One day I mustered enough courage to ask one of the men to let me get books from the library in his name. Surprisingly, he consented. I cannot help but think that he consented because he was a Roman Catholic and felt a vague sympathy for Negroes, being himself an object of hatred. Armed with a library card, I obtained books in the following manner: I would write a note to the librarian, saying: "Please let this nigger boy have the following books."
I would then sign it with the white man's name. When I went to the library, I would stand at the desk, hat in hand, looking as unbookish as possible. When I received the books desired I would take them home.Book culture for black folks hardly limits itself to black books. The writer Albert Murray attended Tuskegee University (an HBCU) a few years after the novelist Ralph Ellison. There was a card in the back of books that recorded who checked out what and when from the library. Murray would actively seek out and then read books in the library that had been previously checked out by Ellison. At the time, the library was filled primarily with books by white authors. Still, that notion of a young black student at an all-black college searching for books read by another older and admired black student captures something concerning black book culture, you know?
It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that one of the most popular and powerful book clubs in the history of this country was named after a black woman--Oprah Winfrey. She could’ve done many things with her money, time, and influence, but among other things, she chose a book club.
For much of my life, I have found myself in the presence of black people who have shared narratives with me about the connections between black folks reading books and black folks achieving freedom. Those deeply held beliefs about the relationship between black folks, books, reading, and liberation were, you know, part of black book culture.
• A Notebook on Book History
• A Notebook on bookstores and book collections