2000 The Harlem Book Fair

The Harlem Book Fair was held on Saturday, July 22, 2000 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on West 136th Street between Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard in New York City  

From one vendor's perspective the Harlem Book Fair was, as they say, "ALL THAT!".   Rarely is there a time where one can be surrounded by so many lovers of our culture, and literature.  The Harlem Book Fair included panel discussions, authors readings, poetry readings and an entire street of vendors including publishers, authors, book stores and magazines.  All of this was free to the public.  

This was actually my first time attending the Harlem Book Fair (HBR)-- it conflicts with my daughter's birthday, which is the same weekend (this year we pushed her birthday party back a week).   In exchange for advertising the HBR on the AALBC web site, I was given a table at the Harlem Book Fair to sell books and promote AALBC.com.  I was concerned if I would have the stamina to stand at a table all day trying sell books by little known or self published authors.  I was also disappointed that I would miss all the panels and readings after finally making it to the Harlem Book Fair.  I figured AALBC could stand a break from cyberspace and breathe in some of the aromatic air from the streets of Harlem.

Troy Johnson AALBC.com founder

My table was nestled, midway down the block, between the Nkiru tent and the Mosaic Magazine table.  I could not be in a better location.  The Nkiru Book store is an institution and has a long history of serving New York City residents.  Mosaic Magazine's Ron Kavanaugh is a rare find; he truly understands that we benefit more by working together than in competition.  The vibe was entirely positive.

There was plenty of traffic all day and business was brisk.  I sold more books in the first hour than I have all day at other events.  The crowd was exceptionally knowledgeable about books.   The people who stopped by the table  asked good questions, and shared experiences about books they read.   The day flew by. 

It was also an excellent opportunity to meet people involved in all facets of the book industry.  I found it especially beneficial, because I  also had the pleasure of meeting, in person, people who visit AALBC.com and enjoy what we have to offer -- this was the best part of all.

My hats go off to Linda A. Duggins of TALA (The Africana Literature Archives ) and Max Rodriguez of QBR The Black Book Review.  This event would not have been possible without their effort, time and ability.  If you can make it to New York City for a future Harlem Book Fair -- do it.  It is a wonderful event.

~Troy Johnson, AALBC.com

The following report is from the perspective of a panel participant and performer
Kalamu ya Salaam

the schomburg is on the corner of 135th and malcolm x, the countee cullen library is around the corner on 136th on the same square block. the whole block in front of the library is closed off and street vendors and a stage are the main area for the book fair, plus activities inside in the auditorium and conference rooms. i get there early, before the program begins and almost immediately start running into folk i know and love (well, i don't love all of them, but you know what i mean). we hug and joke and exchange pleasantries, the day is beautifully warm. it was supposed to rain but it rained last night and is clear now. 

(l to r) Kalamu ya Salaam, Sheree R. Thomas, Kiini Ibura Salaam, Ama Patterson, Tony Medina
Just a few of the many writers and poets who participated the Harlem Book Fair

amiri baraka and joe white come strolling round the corner while i'm conversating with howard dodson, the schomburg chief and bobby francois, who is dodson's right hand. a knot of us are lead upstairs for a light repast. they have fresh fruit available. i smile when i see the sliced watermelon and joke that this ought to bring back howard memories for amiri (referring to the by now legendary watermelon incident that partially lead to baraka's dismissal from the capstone of negro education). when a strapping willie perdomo strides in looking like he's ready to take on felix sanchez, i know that this is going to be a wonderful event. 

the library is humming with folk. meanwhile we get into those joking insults common among people with big egos who have known each other for a long time. at one point i ask amiri: say, man, i hear you bout to put out your third autobiography. they say your first one was fiction. and your second one was creative non-fiction. and your third one is... baraka cuts in: ...a novel. (in case you haven't checked it out yet, baraka's autobiography has two different editions and two different publishers even though it is 85% the same book, but oh what a difference the 15% makes. even if you have the first one, the second one is worth getting if only for the long introduction which significantly raises the bar on self revealing antidotes and voluntarily airing dirty linen... check it out, you'll see what i mean.) and baraka goes on, commenting on an academic who came up to him and wanted to argue with baraka about what baraka meant in some of his writings. baraka cracks: man, the worst thing you can do is tell the truth about yourself. cause you know they got motherfuckers out there, to hear them tell it, they know more about you than you do. 

i ask willie about what he's working on. he says a new book called smoking lovely. i make some drug joke about the title. willie smiles his winning smile and jokes back. baraka says something and then jumps up looking for the john. i let loose with a macabre comment about old hippies shooting up insulin in the bathroom (ok, i know i have to explain a little bit of background or it won't make any sense to the majority of folk reading this, but before i give the reference, let me just say, we were all laughing and having big fun, and we were all laughing because we all knew the references and didn't require backgrounding, which is a significant part of why the moment was so enjoyable, we all knew each other. anyway, in his autobiography, baraka talks about shooting dope during his days in the village; well, he's diabetic now.) enough of this, you had to be there... 

they were getting ready to start outside. as we are threading through the first floor i decide to see if a computer is free so i can go online. yeah, i can get a half hour.  the deal is, i routinely get over 200 emails a day and if i go for over 48 hours without checking it, my mailbox will be full and messages will bounce back. i know that this may be the only chance i get to go online for the rest of the day. 

so, i miss baraka's presentation. when i come out, he's been on and split. i walk around a bit checking out some of the many vendors, but before i can go too far, i run into more folk i know (as usual just as sure as i start naming names, i'm going to forget somebody, so i'll just leave it at everywhere i turned there was somebody i was glad to see). now they have some african drummers dropping funky polyrhythms, the sun is shinning, a rainbow of beautiful black people are flowing past like this was the river jordan, kids was running around being kids, the whole street was full of book vendors, it was absolutely loverly. 

i had seen bell hooks who said she was doing a panel, so i decided to go in and catch that. it was mannie barron, an editor at harper collins, moderating a panel called: "black literature today: high brow, low brow, no brow" with bell hooks, colin channer, someone whose name i didn't catch who was filling in for stanley crouch (who got there late and was put onto the hip hop panel which followed our dark matter panel), and omar tyree

i believe it was cspan who was tapering the event. the panel got intense as issues of popularity versus literary were bandied back and forth. predictably omar tyree was arguing for writing so that ordinary people could understand your work and not using a lot of big words trying to be so called literary. bell hooks argued that we ought to be able to do it all and not one or the other. they took questions from the audience and that only increased the heat. it was standing room only up in there. 

colin was so on with the zinging zestfulness of his insights that it was criminal. he was sarcastic one moment and soberly on point the next. for example, colin was very respectful of his fellow panel members at times almost functioning as a referee (like when he pointed out that all of this talk was like the difference between buying a car or a truck, they served different purposes, and for some purposes you wanted a truck and for some you wanted a sports car), at other times colin was the model instigator, baiting fellow panelists (like when omar was talking about critics, colin would blurt out "conspiracy" and as omar continued his argument, colin would strategically drop the word "conspiracy" as a way of deflating what was threatening to blow up into a completely exaggerated line of reasoning). when the moderator noted they had to stop, a collective groan went up from the audience. 

the dark matter panel was next. cheryl rozier, who is working as a publicist, introduced sheree thomas, the editor of dark matter. sheree introduced the panel which consisted of ama patterson (the daughter of writer raymond patterson), linda addison, kalamu ya salaam and walter mosely. at this point i will quote sheree thomas who wrote a summary of the panel. 

"A Great Day in Harlem: Saturday, July 22 outside the Countee Cullen Library... I had a great time up in Harlem, with Linda, Ama, Kalamu, Kiini, and Walter Mosley. The book fair was terrific, with all manner of writers and booklovers in attendance. I was amazed at the variety of work available and regretted that I couldn't clone myself and attend all the great panels, readings, performances, etc. QBR and the organizers should be congratulated. Glad to say our panel was well attended, with lots of folk interested in "Black Writers and the Future." And imagine us signing books right alongside Sonia Sanchez--who passed along her own copy of Dark Matter for autographing. And then Dark Matter sold out (yes!), from three different vendors, and a copy couldn't be found anywhere...! Later, a few of us celebrated at Londell's over on 139th and Frederick Douglass Blvd. The restaurant is around the corner from my old digs on Strivers Row, and it was really special being there with such nice company."

mainly, we each talked a bit about what we were trying to do with our particular contributions to the anthology and what were some of our views on the black use of what is popularly referred to as science fiction. i didn't take notes, didn't feel like taking notes, had already decided i was not going to write a detailed report. why? well, to tell you the truth because i was enjoying the moment, savoring the feel goodness of it all. it was really that kind of day. for example, walter mosley is a trickster. linda was sitting to my left and walter on my right. at one point linda was talking about how liberating science fiction was and how she was essentially a shy per son. walter playfully interrupts and says, that dragon used to be a marshmellow (he was referring to the dragon tattoo that linda had on her right arm). 

there was that beautiful dynamic dialectic which is common to our people when we're on the one: we be enjoy making serious points and, at the same time, we be serious about enjoying ourselves. this was one of those great gatherings.  although we were seriously discussing important literary issues, nevertheless, there was a great deal of humor going down and around and all through the day. moreover, to give you an idea of how rich a day this was, while we were holding forth in the downstairs auditorium inside, outside on stage in the street was elizabeth nunez reading from her novel bruised hibiscus, nelson george reading from his novel, one woman short, bebe moore campbell, herb boyd reading from his anthology, the autobiography of a people, and sonia sanchez reading poetry. see what i mean! 

after our panel, next up was a hip hop panel moderated by nelson george, with the journalist toure, farai chideya and stanley crouch. i don't know how it went because i moseyed outside to check the street scene. before i was two feet out the door, my daughter kiini pointed out my good friend roger bonair-agard who was there with two other (steve coleman and alix olson) nuyorican slam champions to read. another round of hugs, effusive greetings and guffaws as we caught up on what each other was up to. 

Carolyn A. Butts
Publisher, African Voices

i didn't get to see even half of the vendor tables, everytime i would start to explore, i'd run into somebody. at one point about half way down the block i got to the table that troy johnson of african american literary book club (aalbc.com) was sharing with ron kavanaugh of mosaic magazine. they both were delighted with the fair. troy said he sold more books in four or five hours than all last month including a disastrous trip to philadelphia. ron had sold out of magazines. they both were extremely complementary of the job max rodriguez had done in putting the book fair together. 

then it was time to go back down the street to do the book signing for dark matter. by then tony medina, who is also in the anthology, had arrived. five or six of us from dark matter occupied two thirds of the autographing table and on the other end sonia sanchez looking regal as a queenmother and foxey as only beautifully mature black women can. she did not have gray hair, she had silver strands. 

Ron Kavanaugh and Fab Five Freddy

before an hour was gone we found out that three different vendors, including a time-warner table (the publisher of dark matter) had sold out. that just reinforced troy's assessment that this was one of the best book buying crowds he had ever encountered. but then, hey, it's the big apple. you could pull together a program of literary luminaries cause a lot of them live here. and you could get an audience of readers from the neighborhood because a lot of people read here (the long subway and bus rides promote reading. everywhere you look you see riders zoned out, their heads deep in a book as they block out the cacophony of new york public life). no where else in the country does such a rich combination of authors and audience inhabit such a geographically small but population-dense strip of land. 

max rodriguez had pulled this one off with aplomb. i heard none of the naysaying and sotto voce criticism that periodically erupted about the medgar evers conference. uniformly, everybody was very happy with how the harlem book fair turned out. plus, he had the qbr: black book review out there as the official journal of the harlem book fair with the schedule in the middle of the book. (plus, yours truly has a long review of recent poetry books in that issue, and would appreciate any feedback anyone might have). next year, undoubtedly, will be even more banging. congratulations, max!

stay strong/be bold 
a luta continua 


Related Links

Nkiru Center for Education and Culture

Mosaic Magazine

QBR The Black Book Review

Last Updated: Thursday, December 14, 2017