Sunday, November 5, 2017

JCUF VOL 4 NO 1 (2017) - The Harlem Book Fair and the Seattle Urban Book Expo

Harlem is the heart of Black American arts and culture, and just stepping foot on 135th Street, you can feel the history, the soul, and the vibrancy of the community. As the host of the country's largest Black book festival--the Harlem Book Fair--it is the perfect setting for literary celebration, cultural investigation, and community gathering.

All of the literary greats have had a presence at this event, from Cornel West and Maya Angelou, to Terry McMillan and Walter Mosley. With a mission of creating "access to the transformative power of reading by celebrating, encouraging, and promoting literacy and literacy awareness through public programs, community participation, corporate partnerships and in-school programs that broaden and strengthen the vitality of the African-American community" it is a must-see event for any Black writer or cultural enthusiast.

Kya Publishing visited the event in July of 2017, to experience the culture, speak with the participating authors, gather new reading materials, and gain deeper understanding of the value of the cultural-specific book fair to the Black and "urban" writing community.

An outdoor festival with a musical stage, food vendors, and books and writers-a-plenty, the Harlem Book Fair took place on an ideal New York summer day that felt rich with the culture and spirit of the city. To the backdrop of a live jazz band and various performances, spoken word artists, author readings, and guest speakers, the intersection of 135th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard in uptown New York was bustling with activity. The event began in 1998, and was founded by Max Rodriquez who is also the publisher of the QBR/Black Book Review.

Dozens of vendor booths, ranging from the elaborate to the no-frills, aligned the road, bookmarked by the New York Public Library's Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture, as well as other Harlem landmarks. There were Israelites distributing promotional materials for an upcoming community event, authors without stationary vendor booths who shared their literature from backpacks, and community members and supporters visiting with those on display.

It felt like how a Black book fair should feel. The aroma of food on the grill, and the sounds of brass instruments made it sound like how a Black book fair should sound. A sensory experience made it easy to want to learn about the texts and artists.

The literature? The authors presented a range of works varying from tales of romance, to three-hundred page deep historical fiction from scholars and life-long writers. Mystery stories, children's was all there. Careful investigation of the books and products made it evident that it wasn't so much the specific books that made this event such an important one, but it was the collective presentation of the books, and the spirit of the location and legacy that made that particular venue so special.

A month later, August 26 in Seattle was the 2nd annual Seattle Urban Book Expo, hosted by founder Jeffrey Lee Cheatham II, a children's author and community mobilizer on the west coast. This particular platform was created for urban authors to showcase their works, to provide a place for urban literature in the Seattle community, and a location for Seattle's cultural folk to gather and communicate with one another.

Born and raised in Seattle, Cheatham is an expert on the ever-changing face of the city's social construction, and the access and availability for individuals to meet up and share. There are no predominantly "Black" or particularly "urban" neighbourhoods in Seattle, there are reportedly few urban cultural-specific night clubs or events, and there isn't a radio station to project the music and sounds that this demographic would appreciate.

With approximately 350 attendees and over 20 authors (including Omari Amilli, Key Porter, Amber Racks Kemp, Kenneth Thomas Senior, Sharon Black, Deon Abdullah, Kamari Bright, James D. Macon, the Seattle Escribe collective, Gui Chevalier, Zackery Driver, Stacey Marie Robinson--representing Kya Publishing--Aramis Hamer, Nyrel Ausler, Freddie McClain, and Natasha Rivers aka "N. Marie") the book fair was filled with opportunity for dialogue and book sales.

Cheatham presented two events leading up to the Book Expo, including a panel discussion at the local Seattle Public Library, as well as an author showcase. The enthusiasm for the event gains momentum with each mention and appearance, and it is becoming the cornerstone of his development of the urban book industry in Washington, as well as a means to socialization with his peers and community.

With circulating journalists, patrons who were eager to ask questions and exchange contact information, one could feel the need for the event, as well as the enjoyment of all participants. The live DJ playing the best of American rhythm and blues gave it the essence of cultural celebration as readers lingered, authors chatted, and the hours flew by on one of Seattle's only cultural-specific events for the year.

The commonalities between the legendary book fair in the heart of Harlem, and the fresh book fair in Seattle's historical Washington Hall? It was the feeling. The sense of belonging. The essence of self-empowerment as independent writers and publishers proudly presented their texts to the world. The recognition that both events were the culmination of months of planning, and years of vision, all while starting in finishing in just a few brief hours.

Strong elements of cultural authenticity anchored these events, and the celebration of literature and identity simultaneously. It was evident that these book fairs in Harlem, Seattle, and across the continent represent an integral part of the writer's identity, as well as the community's well being through honouring and celebration the tradition. There is social cohesion, and an ongoing recruitment of new attendees and new participants.

The book fairs claim spaces, and shape new traditions. They support individuals and bring them into a larger community of like-minded artists. The live music adds an element of a familiar shared cultural experience, and the food and community involvement is reminiscent of family gatherings and intimate memories.

Self-organization. Mass mobilization. These events--whether historical or emerging--are a reminder that this sub-section of cultural writing exists, and is consistently building and creating spaces for its permanent influence.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's Journal of Canadian Urban Fiction.

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