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On Black Friday while the rest of America was camped outside of Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, and their local mall, many in freezing temperatures, I had the good fortune to be first in line at my local Black owned bookstore Eso Won. Not only was I the first in line, I was the line. Sadly, Eso Won didn’t open up until 10 o’clock Friday morning. I guess one person in line on Black Friday didn’t warrant opening the store up at 4 a.m. Which is not to put a negative reflection on the bookstore, I’m sure had there been hundreds camped outside of the store waiting to buy books that the owners would have gladly opened up early. I must point out though that this is the same bookstore that the community rallied around a month ago when there was talk of the store possibly closing down. When I came back later that afternoon with a friend to do some shopping, the only difference between then and my 4 a.m. trip was that the store was open and the lights were on, but besides the owner and us, Eso Won was a ghost town.
Which begs the question, how much do we really value our Black bookstores? If you go off of all of the rhetoric that was being given when the Los Angeles Times ran an article indicating that the store might close, you would have expected, as did I, that on Black Friday of all days, Blacks would be buying books in droves as gifts for the holidays in an attempt to not only keep the store open for business, but perhaps to boost the literacy rates of those in their own households with something more than the user’s manual for some electronic gadget or the Bible. No pun intended towards my Christian friends, but the Bible shouldn’t be the only book that we pick up in a week’s time to read.
Mind you, this problem isn’t specific to Los Angeles. There are Black bookstores all over this country that continue to operate in the red while we do our part in making sure that corporations like Wal-Mart see record profits.
So then, how much do we really value our Black bookstores and authors? But more importantly, how is it that Black Americans have no problem pointing out the disparities between the education that kids in more affluent neighborhoods receive to students in poverty-stricken and mostly minority neighborhoods? We then have the audacity to turn around and use those same disparities to support the reasons why 11th grade students read, write, and calculate at a fourth grade level. Then for Christmas, we spend millions of dollars on crap that makes sure our kids stay reading, writing, and calculating below their grade level?
Now let’s be real. How many of us were camped outside of Wal-Mart on Black Friday to get the latest copy of “And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since” by Rep. Charles B. Rangel or “The Women Who Raised Me” by actress Victoria Rowell? Nope, most of us braved the cold weather with coffee mugs in hands to be the first in line to get a discounted Nintendo Wii, or a flat screen television. Meanwhile, come December 25th, I am willing to bet there will be more video games, Apple iPods, movie DVDs, and other electronic gifts under our trees than those things that we call books. You know those things that have four sides and come in hard and paperback covers and in both fiction and non-fiction varieties. Yeah books. Like as in Oprah’s Book Club. Books!
Before Alice Walker’s The Color Purple was a movie or a play, it was a best-selling novel, likewise, so were blockbusters Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, and the soon to be released film “The Golden Compass” by U.K. British novelist Philip Pullman.
Plainly put, we can’t have it both ways. We can’t complain about the rate of illiteracy among our children (and adults) while campaigning for our Black bookstores to stay open, and then during the great American holiday shopping season, buy a whole bunch of crap that we really don’t need and can’t really afford in the first place from companies that do very little in the way of giving back to your community and are partly, if not completely responsible for putting mom and pop stores out of business, including our beloved Black bookstores.
So which is it?
That Nintendo Wii isn’t going to do much to keep 12 year-old Dameon from failing English nor is the Apple iPod going to contribute much in making sure that sixteen year-old Keisha passes the SATs, hell even takes the SATs! And neither the Wii nor the iPod are going to teach your children their Black history or inspire them to go on to be more than just another statistic.
Everybody isn’t going to end up like American Idol winner Fantasia Barrino being able to fake your way through a nationally televised talent show, record contracts, and go on to publish a memoir about it. In the same manner that most of our kids aren’t going to end up basketball, football, or rap music stars.
If we’re really serious about the talk that we spout about our children’s education and our Black owned booked stores, then tis’ the season to buy a book, and lots of them. Buy books for your kids, any kid, doesn’t have to be necessarily be yours. Buy books for grown ass adults that could stand to do something other than sitting around watching daytime television shows Cheaters and Jerry Springer, riding around the hood on D’s with an empty gas tank, or sitting on their thrown at the corner liquor store as they reign supreme as the Parking Lot King or Queen. As a matter of fact, for the group just mentioned, I highly suggest the Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary’s Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.
Hey, you might get hated on for doing it...and? I’d rather be hated on for buying books as presents than spending a ridiculous amount of money (that I don’t have in the first place) on useless gifts that are going to be obsolete in a few months when a newer version comes out. I’d much rather make a positive contribution to both the individual I’m buying the gift for and my community by buying a book by a Black author at a Black bookstore.
Don’t let prison be the only place where reading is encouraged. So tis’ the season, please buy book and do your part to help save the Black race.
Jasmyne Cannick n is a social commentator and activist who is known for addressing the issues others can’t or simply won’t. Chosen as one of ESSENCE Magazine’s 25 Women Shaping the World, at 29, Jasmyne is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and writes a popular daily blog at jasmynecannick.com and myspace.com/jasmynecannick. She resides in Los Angeles and can be reached at