Words of Danger, Words of Power: Radical Bookstores and Children

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One of the longest-running Black British bookshops, started by John La Rose; the George Padmore archive is above the shop.

I have a collection of about 1000 children’s books specifically related to the Caribbean and Black Britain. They date back to the 1700s, but the bulk of them come from the twentieth century. This collection started when I discovered the radical Black bookstore, New Beacon, in London. New Beacon opened in 1966, and their children’s collection included both new books and impossible-to-find-anywhere-else books, pamphlets, educational texts, posters that they had offered for sale since the early seventies. Many of the items had been available for Black British supplementary schools, after-school or Saturday programming that aimed to solidify necessary skills as well as teach the history and literature that the mainstream British schools ignored. I could find anything here, from a 1971 poetry anthology to introduce secondary school students to poets like Martin Carter, Edward Brathwaite and Derek Walcott, to a Black History poster from around 2010 highlighting famous (and not-famous-enough) Black Britons. The major chain bookstores in Britain often kept new Black British titles only a few months at most, and even they usually only stocked such titles in London or Birmingham. If I had been out of the country when a book first appeared, I knew I would have to get to New Beacon. I spent tens of hours and hundreds of pounds there from the time I discovered it in the late 1990s.

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I bought AN Forde’s 1971 anthology of (mostly Black Caribbean) poets at New Beacon for two pounds, sixty-nine pence.

By that time, New Beacon was one of the last remaining Black British bookstores in London. During the 1970s, New Beacon was one of many Black and radical community bookstores; others included Bogle L’Ouverture Press founders Jessica and Eric Huntley’s Walter Rodney Bookshop, Centerprise in Hackney, and the Peckham Publishing Project. All of these sold children’s books designed specifically to connect African, Afro-Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani, and Black British children to their roots. Often, the bookshops encouraged radical activity, particularly with the rise of the National Front in the 1970s. Bookshop owners John La Rose and the Huntleys, for example, organized marches against the police after the New Cross Fire. The community bookshops published books from members of their community. Centerprise published the poems of Hackney schoolchildren, and Peckham Publishing Project produced (among other books) Lorraine Simeon’s Marcellus, a book about a child with dreadlocks that I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog. In a hostile climate, Black British and radical community bookstores were safe havens where children could learn about their own history, culture, and place in British society.

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Young Black Britons might know Malorie Blackman and Benjamin Zephaniah, but this poster I bought at New Beacon also introduces them to the first Black Briton to write his life story, Briton Hammon.

The tradition of the Radical Black Bookstore is not, of course, just a British one. Recently I came across a children’s book that celebrates the National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem. The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth and Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore (Carolrhoda 2015) is Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s tribute to her great-uncle, Lewis Michaux, who started the bookshop in the 1930s. The bookstore’s exuberant façade is captured in pictures by R. Gregory Christie, in which it is clear that Lewis Michaux was influenced by thinkers such as Marcus Garvey. His bookstore influenced others as well, both the ordinary reader and the famous, and Micheaux Nelson discusses visits by Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. And through the viewpoint of the young son of the bookshop’s owner, Micheaux explains both the history of oppression of the African-American community and the need for African-American-specific bookstores. The young narrator tells a story familiar to anyone connected with books and the Black community: “When Dad went to a bank to borrow money to open a bookstore for black people, the banker said no. He said Dad could have a loan to sell fish and chips or fried chicken, but not books. The banker told him, ‘Black people don’t read’” (n.p.)

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Black Bookstores do so much more than scratch a book itch, as Micheaux Nelson’s book attests.

The banker might have told Michaux that some in white society prefer it when Black people don’t read. When Michaux finally gets his bookstore, his son comments that every time he looks out the store window, “There are some squad cars . . . Dad jokes, ‘Anytime more than three black people congregate, the police get nervous’” (n.p.). Michaux’s experience of the suspicion of white society is mirrored in other Black bookstore owners; the Huntleys’ Walter Rodney Bookshop, for example, was regularly sprayed with racist graffiti, and according to Margaret Andrews, “Racist material including National Front literature and animal excrement were pushed through the letterbox” (Doing Nothing is Not an Option 137). But despite the surveillance and the racist attacks, Black bookstores in the US and the UK stayed open through some dark periods in history because, as The Book Itch concludes, “WORDS. That’s why people need our bookstore” (n.p.).

Michaux’s bookstore closed in 1975, according to his great-niece. “In 1968, the area of 125th Street and Seventh Avenue was chosen for construction of a new state office building. Some felt that officials had purposely targeted this site to disrupt bookstore activities. Lewis was forced to relocate his store . . . It remained open for several years until Lewis received notice from the state that he was being evicted”. Washington DC’s Black bookshop, Drum and Spear, had closed a year before Michaux’s. The Walter Rodney Bookshop hung on until 1990, by which time rental costs in London had begun their sharp climb upwards, and years of the Thatcher government had reduced funding for multicultural initiatives.

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R. Gregory Christie’s illustrations make it clear that Lewis Michaux had no intention of hiding his radical ideas, even when the police were right around the corner.

John La Rose’s New Beacon bookshop made it until their fiftieth anniversary, but now they too have closed their bookshop doors (they continue to maintain the George Padmore Institute Archives on the bookshop site, 76 Stroud Green Road—and it’s a vital archive of post-Windrush Black British history). For decades, the Black bookstore has provided history, culture and radical politics to populations that often have nowhere else to go to access these things. As we enter a new political era, I would argue that these spaces are more needed than ever. If you have a Black, radical, or community bookshop near you, no matter what your own background, go patronize it today. That bookshop’s existence may save the life of or provide the support for a young reader who will grow up to challenge our increasingly unequal society.

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