Thursday, November 27, 2014

Memories of Old Black Bookstores

I grew up in Harlem, and one of the fondest memories I had growing up was my father taking my twin sister and I to 125th Street to a large store with a bunch of crazy signs and posters outside. Signs like “Repatriation Headquarters – Back to Africa Movement – Recruiting – Register Here!” Posters like “Get Away Jordan. Let Gods Chullon By.” 
To my little 4-year-old mind there seemed to be a million books in the store, but it wasn’t until much later that I realized it was actually a bookstore. A pretty well-known bookstore, at that. – The famous Michaux Bookstore, frequented by the likes of Malcolm X, and Eldridge Cleaver.
But if you had asked me back then, I would have said it was a place for my father to hangout and talk to a bunch of guys about politics, history, and about Crayola having a crayon called “Flesh” that didn’t look like our flesh at all.
When I moved to Philadelphia, I was ecstatic to find there were other bookstores like that here. Bookstores like Hakim’s Bookstore on 52nd Street, where the owner, Dawud Hakim, would sit and talk to teens about respect, and self-awareness, and made sure that they all knew who Carter G. Woodson (“He’s the man who lobbied for the schools to teach you all Black History”), W.E.B. DuBois was (“He was a great man who went to Harvard, and helped start the NAACP.”), and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were (“I don’t even want to hear you not knowing about him.”) 
Hakim also made sure that the parents of those children, knew about the Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys series written by Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu when they came to his store. He’d talk to them for a few minutes – or a few hours, if they had the time – and then he’d go into the back of the store and do their taxes if was needed.
Hakim understood what most proprietors of African-American bookstores understood – the vital need in the African-American bookstores fulfilled a vital need in the African-American community. 
“There was a little tiny black bookstore in the Gallery that I used to go to all the time, when I was a teenager,” said Rosalyn McDaniel, an attorney who lives Mt. Airy. “I never knew what I wanted, but that was okay, because the woman who owned the store must have been psychic or something. The first book she recommended to me was Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree, and I remember she was also the one who turned me onto Diane McKinney.”
Basic Black Books was the name of the store, and the owners were not only helpful to readers, but to authors, also.
I self-published my first novel, “Satin Doll,” in 1999 and as any self-published author will tell you – if you want to sell, you’ve got to get on bookshelves. But the problem was it darn near impossible at that time to get into a chain store unless you had a major publisher behind you, or you already had a proven sales record. But, of course, it’s hard to get a sales record if stores won’t carry your books.
I remember walking into Basic Black Books and introducing myself to Lecia Warner Bickerstaff, who owned the store with her husband, Joel. I had 10 copies of Satin Doll with me, and Lecia said she’d take five and see how they sold before ordering more. Two days later I got a call from her. She’d read “Satin Doll,” loved it, and wanted more copies. 
lit-lounge_11-30-14a_SM01PHOTO:  Dawud Hakim, owner of Hakim’s Bookstore, in a picture taken in the 1970s.  (Photo by Yvonne Blake)

“I’ve been telling all of my customers about it. Can you bring me 15 more?” she said. 
Well, she kept on recommending it; and within three months Basic Black Books had sold more than 300 copies of my debut novel. And it was because of them, and other African-American bookstores that my books are now carried in major chain stores nationwide as well as on
But I wasn’t the only author helped by African-American bookstores.
“There’s probably not any self-published author who made it to a major publisher who didn’t do it without the help of the black bookstores,” said Linda Duggins, director of publicity for Grand Central Publishing. 
Many people may not remember, but New York Times bestselling authors like E. Lynn Harris, Omar Tyree, and Kimberla Lawson Roby all self-published their first books.
“It was the black bookstores that got them the recognition to be known throughout the country,” said Duggins. “It was through their efforts that we were all introduced to these authors.”
Basic Black Books is no longer in the Gallery. It closed down in 2003, and was replaced by another African-American bookstore, Horizon Books, which closed earlier this year. Liguorius Books, which opened in the Cheltenham Mall in the mid 1970s shut their doors in 2006. Know Thyself Bookstore and Cultural Center, which was owned by poet and social activist Del Jones and Brother Deke is also a thing of the past, as is La Unique African-American Bookstore which was the only African-American owned bookstore in Camden.
But it’s not the Philadelphia area African-American bookstores that have fallen to the wayside, said Troy Johnson, creator and founder of the African-American Literature Book Club website, better known as
“African-American bookstores have taken a huge hit because of the super chains like Barnes and Noble, and online superstores like,” said Johnson, who has been tracking African-American publishing since 1998. “Just 10 years ago there were five times as many bookstores nationwide than there are now.”
Johnson, who operates in Harlem, said most African-American bookstores could not compete with the deep discounts offered by the new competitors, and so people started shopping elsewhere. 
But, the declining numbers of African-American bookstores should concern not only authors and avid readers, but the African-American community as a whole, Johnson said.
“These bookstores served not only as establishment that sold books, but also a place where conscious people could meet and discuss various matters affecting the community, and could exchange ideas,” Johnson explains. “African-American bookstores were places that facilitated deep thought and discussions. It’s a shame to see them go.”
Wesley Bryant, 67, of North Philadelphia, would agree.
“I buy all my books at African-American bookstores, and always have,” Bryant said. “I think it’s important to support black businesses, so I do.” 
Bryant, who has a PhD in Social Work said even as a student he only used white-owned bookstores to get text books. When asked if the college bookstores carried African-American books, Bryant said he didn’t know. 
“I never thought to ask, because I wasn’t going to buy them there,” Bryant said with a deep chuckle. “Their focus is not my focus. Never was, and never will be.”
Bryant said he now buys most of his books at Black and Nobel Bookstore, located on Erie Avenue in North Philadelphia.
Hakim Hopkins, the owner, started out as book vendor and opened his store in 2003. It’s a testament to his business acumen that while African-American bookstores all over the country have been struggling to survive, he actually expanded his store last year.
Black and Nobel stocks a variety of books – from novels to non-fiction; from street-lit to religious texts. The store, which has a strong online presence, also ships books to prisons and correctional facilities.  
Black and Nobel is one of only two African-American bookstores left in Philadelphia. The other is Hakim’s Bookstore, which I mentioned much earlier in this article. 
Dawud Hakim died in 1997,  but one of his last wishes – according to his daughter Yvonne Blake – was that the family keep the store open as long as possible. Blake and her sister, Davita Butler, manage the store which is now open only on Fridays and Saturdays.
“My dad’s been dead for 17 years, and my sister and I fully intend to honor his wish, but it’s been hard,” said Blake, who is 63. “The unfortunate thing is that we will likely have to close in another year or so.”
Blake, who is 63, explained that her mother is extremely ill, and she and sister have are struggling to take care of her and also run the business. Sometimes they can get other family members to staff the bookstore, but not always. And there’s simply not enough money to hire full-time clerks. 
“We have some very long-time customers who still come by when we’re open, but our overall customer base has dwindled significantly,” Blake said. “We can hope for a miracle, but unless one comes soon, the store will have to be closed permanently.”
Johnson, who keeps track of the opening and closing of African-American bookstores, said he is saddened by possible closure of Hakim’s Bookstore, and wished more people in the African-American community were also. 
“There’s hardly any discussion about it all, and practically no coverage about the situation in the media. I get the impression that people really don’t stress themselves about it.” Johnson said in a resigned voice. “If they did care, the African-American bookstore might still be viable.”

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Reading is still FUN-damental… The Philly Book Club experience

ABOVE PHOTO:  Brothers and Sisters Book Club members at Warmdaddys event for Sonia Sanchez. (Photo by Karen Q. Miller)
By Karen E. Quinones Miller

“If you want to hide something from a black person, put it in a book.” 
No one knows the author of that now infamous statement, but we’ve all heard it, and many of have cringed when we did. 
Of course it’s not true; but if proof is needed to show the fallacy of the statement, it’s the large number of African American book clubs that exist across the nation. Groups of people who get together to not only read, but to discuss what they’ve read and share opinions.
“Being in a book club has exposed me to a great number of books that I never would have otherwise read, and meet people whom I met never have otherwise met,” said Shirley Coker, president of the Philadelphia chapter of Go On Girl Book Club, an organization that boasts more then thirty chapters nationwide.
Coker’s chapter includes women of all ages and social economic levels – the only common denomination being their love for books. “It leads to great conversations and great fellowship,” she said. 
Edward Cohen, president of Brothers and Sisters Book Club agrees. His club has members as young as 20, and as old as 80. 
“Since the club is so diverse, the meeting and book discussions can sometimes be lively,” he said with a laugh.” Lively, and sometimes heated, but nothing is taken personally.”
Cohen is an avid reader, but also scrabble player, and often played with a group of people which included neighbor, and co-founder of the book club, Marsetta Lee. 
“Whenever we got together to play we’d wind up talking about books that we were reading, the themes, the good and the bad,” said Cohen who was living in Trenton at the time. “Then someone said we need to start a book club.”
The first meeting occurred in 1995, and the first book was Brothers and Sisters by the Bebe Moore Campbell. There were 12 people at the first meeting, and one of the things they decided was that all of the books they read would be by African-American authors. 
“The general public doesn’t seem to realize that African-American writers need additional support. When they list books on the New York Times Best Sellers List, you seldom see African American books, though there are some excellent African-American authors,” explained Cohen, who now lives in South Philadelphia. 
The New York Times Best Seller’s List is based on the number of books bought in a particular week. Cohen adds that the African American community has enough economic power to get good African-American books on the list, but don’t.
“A lot of us support the white authors not realizing we are not supporting our own,” explained Cohen, adding that group wanted to become part of the solution rather than add to the problem. “So we decided that we give them our support.” 
And African American authors acknowledge that they have benefited from the support.  Kimberla Lawson Roby self-published her book, “Here and Now,” in 1997 and met with book clubs in her hometown of Rockford, Illinois, and eventually around the country, to get the word out. And it worked. People started talking about the book and about having met the author. Roby landed a huge publishing deal with a major publisher, and is now a New York Times best selling author. 
“Book clubs have been a huge blessing to me and my writing career for years, and it is the reason I visit with as many of them as possible,” said Roby, whose new book, A Christmas Prayer was published earlier this month.  
Roby now sometimes meets book clubs by Skype or by telephone conference when she’s not able to appear physically. She also hosts an annual contest, open exclusively to book clubs called “Have Dinner with Kimberla Lawson Roby.” 
“It’s my way of giving back to book clubs for making such an amazing and incomparable difference in my life.” 
Eric Jerome Dickey is another author who was pushed to the New York Times bestseller’s list through the help of book clubs.
“If it weren’t for book clubs, I would never have had a career. The word-of-mouth promotion we get from them is more powerful than the ads taken out by the establishment for other writers” said Dickey, whose latest book is “A Wanted Woman.” “If t wasn’t for book clubs, most authors from my community would be dead on vine.”  
Especially new authors, said Mister Mann Frisby, who self-published his first book, Blinking Red Light, in 2002.
“Putting out a new book is a daunting task so when you get 10 to 12 people who love your book it’s like hitting a jackpot,” said Frisby, a former staff writer for The Philadelphia Daily News. “Because while there may only be a dozen women at the book club, these women then go to work, and tell people how much they love the book, and loved meeting the author.”
The snowball effect led to Frisby being offered a publishing contract from Penguin Books, which also published his second book, “Wifebeater.” 
Frisby, who also wrote the acclaimed book, Holla Back: But Make Sure You Listen First, said that he has maintained his contacts with the book clubs, and uses them as test readers – sending them chapters of the new detective story he is writing.
Ashley Richardson, of Mount Airy, started Women Reading for Wisdom Book Club in September. Their first book was Dusty Crowns by Heather Lindsey, and the next book on their agenda is The Art of Activation, by Lucinda Cross.
“It started as something informal, a few of my friends and people they invited,” explained Richardson, 26, a native of Mount Airy. 
But book clubs aren’t something exclusive to adults. The Overbrook Park Teens Book Club meets twice a month at the Overbrook Library, and read a variety of books that deal with the subjects adolescents deal with in real life. 
“It’s been a great experience for me,” said Erykah Raleigh, 16, a sophomore at Girls High School. “I’ve been reading since I was six, and it’s good to interact with people my age who like to read, and see how they feel about what we’ve read.” 
Each member of the group, which started in 2011, takes turns selecting a group read. Raleigh said her turn is coming up next, and she is considering offering up, Pinned, by Sharon G. Flake.
Raleigh and other members of book clubs are living proof that African-Americans do read, and seem to live out the motto of Black Nationalist leader, Malcolm X.
“Read absolutely everything you get your hands on because you’ll never know where you’ll get an idea from.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Kidnapping Suspect's Uncle Recognized Him From Videotapes - But Did Not Notify Police

An edited version of this story appeared in
Philadelphia Daily News

PHILADELPHIA -- It was horrific. A 22-year-old nursing assistant viciously kidnapped in Philadelphia; a video showing her kicking, struggling against her assailant who -- it  was later discovered -- allegedly kidnapped, raped, and attempted to murder a 16-year-old girl just a month before.

But there may be something more horrific: A relative of the suspect could have notified the police of the man’s identity, but chose not to.

“I suspected it was him,” Lamar Barnes, answered when asked on the cable network show, Dr. Drew On Call last night if he recognized his nephew, Delvin Barnes  from the many videotapes and photographs released by the police.

When the show’s host, Dr. Drew Pinsky, then asked why he didn’t call the police, Lamar Barnes answered that family doesn’t turn over family members to the police. Then added: Especially people of color.

Carlesha Freeland-Gaither's kidnapping ordeal ended Wednesday – three days after her abduction, through the efforts of law enforcement officials in three states, and the help on one man -- Dwayne Fletcher, 37, who witnessed the ordeal, and immediately called the police, using a cell phone that Freeland-Gaithers had deliberately dropped on the sidewalk during the attack.

But it might have ended sooner if Barnes’ uncle or any other family member had contacted the police as soon as they suspected it was him in the video.

When asked if police department had any comment about Lamar Barnes' admission, Public Affairs Officer Jillian Russell would only say: "At this point, Carlesha is safe and [Delvin Barnes] is custody and we are going to let the prosecution process take place."

Philadelphia community activist Maisha Ongoza said there may be systemic reasons for people of color to hesitate going to the police.

“But let’s make it clear, it’s not because they have some allegiance to crime. I think it’s more of a fear that if they turn someone in that person might get beaten by the police, or not get a fair hearing,” said Ongoza, who recently retired as coordinator of the Say Yes to Education, Bryant Chapter.

Ongoza also wanted to make clear that she believes that Barnes’ uncle should have notified the police when he suspected that his nephew was the perpetrator, especially since he knew about Barnes’ violent history towards women.

Barnes was arrested in 2005 for breaking into the home of his estranged wife, hitting and choking her, and then attacking her parents when they tried to come to her aide. According to reports Barnes was sent away for seven years and, moved to Virginia when released last year.

Just last month Barnes allegedly walked up on a 16-year-old girl in Virginia and hit her in the head with a shovel; he then kidnapped and raped her, then showed her photographs of other girls who he said were his previous victims. Barnes is said to have doused the girl with bleach and gasoline, and had started digging her grave. Miraculously, the girl was able to escape. DNA evidence linked Barnes to the crime, and Virginia authorities put out a warrant for his arrest.

Surveillance cameras show Freeland-Gaither had just gotten off a SEPTA bus at the intersection of Coulter and Greene streets at 9:40 p.m. Sunday when she was approached by a man who grabbed her. Though she fought him all the way, he dragged her to his car and shoved her inside.

The sole witness to the crime was Fletcher, and Philadelphia police have said that had it not been for him, they may not have even known, until too late, that a crime had been committed.

The question, though, is whether the crime could have been more quickly solved if Lamar Barnes had notified the police when he suspected the man shown in the pictures and videotapes was his nephew.

“That’s just preposterous. He ought to be ashamed of himself,” said 26-year-old East Oaklane resident, Gelea L. Matthews when she heard about Lamar Barnes' remarks on the show. “I understand family ties, but you have a duty, as a human being, to say something when you know someone’s life in danger.”

Supreem Da Rezarekta’, a well-known Philadelphia MC, said that there was simply no justifiable excuse for anyone who recognized Delvin Barnes on the videotape to sit back and do nothing.

“I even understand the whole ‘no-snitch’ stuff, but the deal is sometimes you have to step up and do the right thing,” said the entertainer. “Don’t worry about the code of the streets or anything. How would he feel if it was his daughter?”

In his defense Lamar Barnes, who has said that he has a daughter and granddaughters, claimed that if he knew how to contact his nephew he would have tried to convince him to turn himself in.

Lamar Barnes also told Dr. Drew that he wished the Freeland-Gaither’s family well, and is glad that their daughter is back home with them. 

Filed 8:05 a.m. by Karen E. Quinones Miller

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Cosby: His Life and Times (non) Book Review

The package arrived last Wednesday – November 12 — and I opened it to see the book I had requested from Harper Collins – Cosby: His Life and Times. When I called the publisher, the day before, the accusations of rape against Bill Cosby had just begun to surface. Old accusations, that had been hurled and heard before. 

But by the next day, when I was actually holding the book in my hand, a full media storm was in force. The Washington Post had published an op-ed written by Barbara Bowman, an actress who knew Cosby in the 1980s. She stated that Cosby drugged and raped her. The online article received more than 1 million views. 

I quickly flipped to the index of the 532-page book, to see if Bowman was referenced in the book. She was not. But, okay, the woman had not filed charges, although there were allegations – and decades after the alleged event. 

Nor was Joan Tarshis, an actress, who said she was raped – twice — by Cosby in 1969 when they were both working for the Universal Studios, named in the book. She told her story to the Hollywood Press. But, again, still she pressed no charges against Cosby back then. So, yeah, I could see why there might not be mention of her. 

I then looked to see if he referenced Janice Dickinson, the well-known super model, who now alleges that Cosby raped her back in 1970.  Not there.

But surely Whitaker had mentioned Andrea Constand. She was the former Temple University assistant coach who not only accused Cosby of rape, but did file charges against him in 2005. She alleged that she was at Cosby’s home in Cheltenham, and he gave her a pill to “ease my anxiety,” along with a glass of wine. She said then she felt drowsy, and the next thing she knew Cosby was sexually assaulting her, and she was helpless to stop him. 

Cosby’s lawyer called the charges preposterous at the time, but when California attorney Tamara Green heard about Constand’s accusations she went on NBC’s Today Show, to say that she had been sexually assaulted by Cosby in the 1970s after he gave her wine and a pill. She said that although she didn’t come forward earlier, since hearing that he’d done it again, she felt obligated to do so, saying: “Even two are too many.” 

Bruce Castor, then Montgomery County District Attorney, declined to begin a prosecution against Cosby on Constand’s charges, saying that there was not enough evidence. 

But Constand would not go away quietly. In March 2005 she filed a civil lawsuit against Cosby, which stated that there were 12 other women who would testify that they, too, had been assaulted by Cosby. Green was one of the women willing to testify; another was identified by the Philadelphia Daily News as Beth Ferrier, who said that she was drugged and sexually assaulted by Cosby in Denver in the 1980s.  

In November 2006, Cosby and Constand settle out of court for an undisclosed amount, which means that none of the women willing to testify on Constand’s behalf would be heard in court. This prompted Barbara Bowman, another one of the women who Constand would have called to the stand, to come forward and tell People Magazine that Cosby had drugged and sexually assaulted her in the 1970s.

But none of this was in the Cosby book, which was written by Mark Whitaker, an editor for Newsweek Magazine, which I found interesting, since Newsweek had earlier published a story in which Tamara Green talked about seeing Cosby in Las Vegas, and running after him yelling, “liar” and “rapist.” Perhaps it was because Cosby cooperated with Whitaker for the book, which instantly hit the New York Times seller’s list. 
Things quieted down for a while, until comedian Hannibal Buress did a standup show here in Philadelphia, Cosby’s hometown, in October and made reference to the sexual allegations against him. 

“Bill Cosby has the f—ing smuggest old black man public persona that I hate,” Buress said during his performance. “He just gets on TV – ‘Pull your pants up, black people. I was on TV in the ’80s. I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom.’ Yeah, but you raped women, Bill Cosby. So, brings you down a couple notches.”

Buress goes on to tell his laughing audience: “I’ve done this bit on stage, and people don’t believe me. People think I’m making it up. If you didn’t know about it, when you leave here, Google ‘Bill Cosby rape.’ It’s not funny.”

Well, someone must have finally taken Buress seriously, because a taping of his act was put on YouTube, and quickly went viral. 

Whitaker’s biography on Cosby’ was published in September, a month before Buress shot the rape allegations onto headlines, but Whitaker didn’t need the comedian to remind him of them. He just chose to ignore them. 

When asked why he hadn’t mentioned any of numerous rape allegations – and not even Constand’s civil suit which Cosby had settled out of court – Whitaker told the press: “In these cases, there were no definitive court findings, there were no independent witnesses, and I just felt, at the end of the day, all I would be doing would be, ‘These people say this, Cosby denies this.’ And not only as a reporter but his biographer, if people asked me, ‘What is the truth? What do you think?’ I would be in the position of saying, ‘I don’t know,’ and I just felt uncomfortable.”

Yeah, uh, and I, uh, feel uncomfortable with Whitaker’s answer.

I’m a veteran reporter myself, and while I would waiver about writing about the rape allegations that came in decades after the fact (not to say I would or wouldn’t, but I would waiver), I would have – without a doubt – written about Cosby settling that lawsuit with Constand. 

But let’s be clear it doesn’t mean that I think the allegations are true. It also doesn’t mean I think they’re not. 
“I’m from South Philly, and I love and respect Bill Cosby, especially because of all he’s done for young black men, and the black community,” said John Munson, 57, an emergency medical technician. “But, still when something keeps coming back, it seems like some things must be true. I don’t want to look at like that, but it’s hard not to."

Greg McKinley, a member of the organization Men United for a Better Philadelphia said he’s waiting on proof, but admits he has concerns about the validity of the accusations. “Anything is possible, but I find it strange that all these allegations are being made by white women. It It’s just opens a whole subject of a type of attack that has historical precedent.” 

McKinley, who lives in West Philadelphia, also said the fact that these accusations are being made long after the statute of limitations have expired also seems suspect to him.  ”Let’s face it, this is a man under more scrutiny as an individual than the Catholic Church as an institution."

But Maisha Ongoza, a longtime community activist who also worked as a social worker, said she believed Andrea Constand was assaulted, and also believes the other allegations made by the other women are true. 
“I’ve worked with people who were sexually assaulted, and I’ve done a lot of research on them. They don’t always come forward immediately…” said Ongoza who recently retired as coordinator of the Say Yes to Education, Bryant Chapter. “I’ve always believed he was a serial sexual molester, so these allegations do not surprise me in the least.” 

Ongoza adds that it may be too late because of the statute of limitations for it the cases to be tried in a criminal court but Cosby is now, deservedly being, “tried in the court of public opinion.” 

Forty-year-old Terry McIntyre said she believes in “innocent until proven guilty,” but says it’s not to believe something happened with the large number of women who have come forward, and basically telling the same story.

“But a lot of people looked up to this man, especially kids growing up watching the Cosby Shows,” said McIntyre,  “And a lot of people are acting like we’re now talking about Dr. Huxtable, and not Bill Cosby the man.”

As a result of the recent uproar, Netflix has canceled a special on Bill Cosby celebrating his 77th birthday, and NBC has cancelled an upcoming pilot for a series in which Cosby would have starred as a patriarch of a three-generation family. TV Land even went as far as canceling the reruns they’ve been showing The Cosby Show – the comedy series that first made the star a household name.

Interestingly, Bruce Castor, the district attorney who decided not to press the charges against Cosby in the Constand case hinted, after he left office, that he did believe Constand, and that detectives who interviewed the star felt that he was being evasive. 

Castor, who now serves on the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, seems relieved that the Cosby allegations is once again in the news.

“Now I can say I thought he did it,” Castor told the media Wednesday. “But back then, I would have been accused of tainting the jury that was going to hear the civil case.”

As for me, I’ve decided not to review the book. 

Not because I believe Cosby is guilty, but because I’m uncomfortable.