The 7th Annual Harlem Book Fair
G. Miki Hayden
By G. Miki Hayden
Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world--a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. W. E. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches
The price one pays for pursuing any profession or calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side. James Baldwin
I can't say that staggering dazed under the hot July sun on 135th Street-at one time the center of Harlem life according to the historians-gave me a feeling of uplift as to what's happening in black literature. Rather the reverse. I felt a bit letdown, despite the sight of booths sponsored by various giants in the industry, such as Time Warner, Simon & Schuster, Kensington, and a couple of others. But what, really, did I expect? The book world is like this-not just the black book world, I suppose.
I live in Harlem and at least a couple of times a week foray along 125th where the booksellers throng. People in Harlem obviously want to read and they want to read stories about people who look like themselves. Most of these books are from Black Pearl Books, the Atlanta publisher of Essence Magazine. Black Pearl, which I didn't see at the Harlem Book Fair, says in its submission guidelines, "BPB only publishes sexy stories with a street-edge to them." (Yes, I've noticed.)
So I suppose I expected to see at the Harlem Book Fair some of the opposite side of the Black Pearl phenomenon, the more literary side of black literature of today. But I really didn't find that on 135th rubbing elbows with the Schomburg Library and Harlem Hospital.
Let me digress once more and bring in the topic of the failed New York City book fair, New York Is Book Country. Why did it fail? Well, I can't be certain, but one of the problems at the end was that none of the large publishers presented anymore, except for their children's book divisions. Still, large crowds appeared because people like events-especially free ones. Then, a different director took over, dispersed the event all over the city and essentially added the final nail to the NY Is BC coffin. Why do I bring that up? Well, I admit to being impressed that several large publishers did spend a few hundred dollars to show up at the Harlem Book Fair. And the NAL (New American Library) imprint of Penguin Group even handed out a chapbook compilation of samples from four of its novels. I think the mainstream publishing effort to support an ethnic book fair is a good thing.
But here's where what I have to say gets a little dicey. Dicey because I hang out with romance and women's fiction writers and I support the genres. And I think the writing of the NAL authors is quite good.
But why are the only black-oriented books that are getting support and attention labeled, for the most part "hot" or "sexy"? (Well, aside from the cook books.) I have to shudder.
But that's the business, I guess. That's why J. D. Salinger locked his unpublished manuscripts into a safe-so no publishing house could get its expletive (the expletive mine, not Salinger's) hands on it.
I just wanted to see something more at the Harlem Book Fair than simply a cut above Black Pearl.
Maybe I'll walk over to Hue-Man Bookstore later today to reassure myself that a range of black literature is being published. Though I'm afraid of being disappointed, that the "range" of books will be backlist-books published a few years ago.
Aside from those mainstream offerings, the Harlem Book Fair presented books from BET-Black Entertainment Television--(featuring love and lust) and a few small but striving presses. A lot of the booths were those of self-published authors; many were food (including Starbucks which gave away sample cups of one of its dessert drinks), and at least half were booths of crafts, from greeting cards to clothing.
Fatby Sidi was there selling his Fatou: An African Girl in Harlem, published by the Harlem Book Center, a book about a 12-year-old girl from West Africa, that is said to be selling well-for a small press release.
A Landlord's Tale by Gammy L. Singer from Dafina, a Kesington imprint, was also represented here. Set in the 1970s, the book looks heartful. Kensington has released a lot of African-American titles, many of which are nonfiction. (By the way, what does "African-American" mean? Many black authors may have other national backgrounds.)
Will I go next year? Yes. Ever hopeful, I will.
Short story Edgar winner G. Miki Hayden is the author of the forthcoming The Naked Writer (Durban House, January 2006)--"Crucial style points for the new AND sophisticated writer..." Lynda Sandoval, Unsettling, HarperCollins
G. Miki Hayden
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