A few weeks ago, I visited Essence Magazine’s website to learn which Black owned bookstore they were going to use as the bookseller for their popular ESSENCE Festival. The festival, which takes place every 4th of July weekend, in New Orleans, is actually one of the nation’s biggest events for Black books—many celebrity and empowerment authors turn out to give free presentations and to autograph books. I was planning to promote the bookseller in my June eNewsletter, by acknowledging the store and reminding attendees that the ESSENCE Festival is a great event for book lovers.
Unfortunately, I was surprised and dismayed to discover Essence, the self-described institution that, “…embodies the hopes and aspirations of Black women,” did not choose a Black owned store to benefit from sales, sure to be generated, by the more than 500,000 attendees of the four day festival.
My very first thought was that New Orleans no longer had a Black owned bookstore. Given the rate at which Black owned stores have been closing, this would not been too terribly surprising. I checked my database of bookstores and discovered the Community Book Center owned and operated by a Black woman, Vera Warren Williams, for the past 31 years, continues to serve the New Orleans community.
After a little research I learned that Community Book Center not only presented Essence (“Where Black Women Come First”) with the idea of selling books, her store was the bookseller for 17 years! Sadly this changed two years ago.
Sure I know Essence, and its festival, has not been Black owned for almost a decade when, Time Inc. acquired the remaining shares, of Essence Communications, it did not already own. I’m also not naive enough to believe that uplifting and empowering Black women would really be a top priority for Time Inc. However, I’m still disappointed.
An article written, by Minister J. Kojo Livingston (originally published in the June 24, 2013 edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper) articulates the outrage of many people:
I realize that boycotting Essence amounts to swimming upstream. First, it’s a party, and most of our people would not care if the party were being thrown by the KKK, as long as the racists provided good tasting food and entertainment. Second, many famous celebrities will be there and will decline to “bite the hand” that is feeding them regardless of how much blood or filth is on that hand. Our people will flock to see those celebrities. However we can’t stop trying to inform and motivate our people. One day we will have the pride and awareness to refuse to participate in anything that does not benefit us.
Community Book Center, owned by a Black woman, had been the sole bookseller for Essence Fest from the beginning. At that time the idea was to do everything possible to strengthen and empower Black owned businesses. Last year Wal-Mart and local white bookstores were allowed in. This year CBC was told that they did not have space for them. When another vendor reportedly dropped out, CBC was still not allowed back in. The local white-owned bookstore had already been approved.
Minister Livingston described the genesis of Community Book Center’s, alternative celebration, Homefest:
In a nutshell, Essence has evicted, booted, put out the only Black-owned bookstore to make more room for retail giant Wal-Mart and a local white book store. The Black-owned Community Book Center is practicing Self-Determination by hosting its own Home Fest during the same time as Essence, so I’ll be making a special trip; hope you will too.
The loss of the opportunity to sell Books at the Essence Festival obviously hurt the Community Book Center financially. Given the fact that we have just over 50 Black owned bookstores left in the United States, it incumbent on all of us, who believe these institutions are important, to go out of our way to support our bookstores.
Obviously Essence, despite their flowery rhetoric of uplifting Black women, will not do it—it is up to you and I.
In 2013, bestselling author Iyanla Vanzant, in a show of support, took time out of her schedule from the Essence Festival and made a special trip to visit Community Book Center, during Homefest.
This year HomeFest celebrates its 2nd year.
If you plan to be in New Orleans for the Essence Festival, consider checking out HomeFest, a pure New Orleans event. I’ll be there
The video below illustrates the important, but not unusual, impact Black owned bookstores have on a community. Here, multimedia activist and principal of the Black Arts Movement, Kalamu ya Salaam describes one such activity at the Community Book Center:
One of the most disturbing things about the internet since it has come under corporate control is that the dissemination of information, important to our community, is much harder to accomplish—despite what proponents of social media might have you believe.
So please, share this information. Tell people.
Of course I can’t let you go without recommending a book…
Check out The Man from Essence: Creating a Magazine for Black Women (published June 10, 2014) by Edward Lewis (Essence Magazine’s co-founder) and Audrey Edwards (Essence’s former Executive Editor).
“…the magazine has also experienced considerable behind-the-scenes turmoil, and much of that drama is the subject of The Man from Essence …we learn that the four founders had no experience in the field of publishing, yet ultimately managed to flourish in part because they had identified a need just begging to be addressed.
He also talks, here, about the historic sale of 49% of the company’s stock to Time, Inc. in 2000, as well as the balance of the shares in 2005. In that passage he further recounts how the magazine’s legendary editor-in-chief, Susan L. Taylor, and other suddenly-disgruntled staff members began issuing demands in an avaricious attempt to share in the windfall profits deservedly earned by the magazine’s creators.”
—Kam Williams, AALBC.com (read the our full book review).
Also check out this conversation with NPR’s Michel Martin, Edward Lewis and Audrey Edwards (Recorded by NPR on June 11, 2014).
See you at Homefest!