Business makes money, and there's something about money that destabilizes black knowledge. It could be our original slave position-whack in relationship to money from the beginning.
We all gotta make money, but the African American moment often isolates the activity.
Blackness as conceptual idea towards freedom is usually only skin deep when it comes to meet business. The prominence of the concept hinges on an assertion of power rooted in our ability to counteract some negativity within the larger society. No doubt, blackness must do this, for if it does not, who will?; but also, reactionary politics give rise to a prominence that flames brightly like those dying stars. The energy burns brighter because we must consume ourselves at a greater rate. We must say something. We must speak truth to power. We must address what needs to be addressed. No doubt, the phenomena operates as a subconscious urge cultivated by years of studying our struggle for freedom. Our need to say what must be said; what others have not said; what others are not saying, is often impulsive. The craft of it does not eliminate this impulse. It is our legitimate response to what we know as oppression.
Academia too is important. The notions of the precise, the nuanced, specific, and detailed are all to be rigorously attended to; but we must also study the industry of writing. If the Black voice is important, so also, is the way in which that Black voice makes it way into the public sphere. Now we are talking about the paper the literature is printed on, the printing presses that roll at midnight, and the industry of the empire of language.
The gaze upon the industry of writers is a wide one. African American writers today are talented and diverse. Diversity, which in the larger society suggests blackness as one sector, does not do the African American writers of today justice. We are many under our one flag granted to us by the country. Under its shadow is the darkness of diversity denied; we are different, dynamic, and yes, black.
A Black Business operating in the industry of the empire of language is a fascinating enterprise. Though we know many Blacks do read and the amount of reading is enough to bolster our self confidence, our role in the industry is still far too small. Many would contest this, though the numbers suggest something different. If we do say the black book market is worth $400 million in sales out of the billions of books sold, we are still insignificant. Black businesses who publicly suggest they should be supported by Blacks operate under the guise of a played out consciousness that imagines blacks would support a black business before a white one. Price point, accessibility, and connotations of quality and being "good enuff" prevent blacks from making these consumer decisions. If we need to change the minds of consumers, we must first realize education is businesses' most expensive proposition. Business meets the urge-the demand, for there the prospects are cheap. Satisfaction via consumerism soothes the will and desire for union with the product. Suggesting that Blacks buy black does address a certain need, but it is low on the list of priorities for most blacks. We want assets. We want to be an asset; and are most times certain that in most situations blackness is not an asset.
"You know you gotta work twice as hard."
"You know they ain't trying to give you that."
It takes a special mind or one empowered with industry and infrastructure to figure out how to make blackness an asset. For the lone individual, the weight is upon them. It rests upon their shoulders. The sleepless nights, the confusion, the doubt, the waking up wondering if the negated value is real. The sense of doom pervades the existence. It is Bigger in the beginning of Native Son asked by his mother to get a job. Who are you to say you are beyond employment, that you have some other value?
It sounds cliche, but then again, the demise of Black Bookstores is rather common knowledge. The answers to the questions Why? are ones that are nowhere more fully avoided than in a statement like "support black businesses." To be harsh, the tired mantra from the late 80's and early nineties belongs to a very different business market and denies the current landscape where class and education issues seem to make it more difficult to navigate technology, transform African American consciousness, or acquire capital and infrastructure.
Indeed, as I ran my own business, Karibu Books from the mid-1990's into the late 2000's I often thought about the times I heard people talk about the only reason they supported me was because our business was black. At the time I found the gesture endearing and sign of some growing consciousness that was destined to radically transform the way in which African Americans interacted with the larger society. The position was one that managed to blend my youthful idealism with my own personal conviction. I was intoxicated by the jet lag of a Black Arts Movement that had not only suggested African Americans create books for African American readers but also, as an extension of Nationalism and the quest for African American independence insisted we spend money with as many African American businesses as possible and filter as much money as we could back into our communities.
Late at night, after working twelve hour days behind a register, only to find myself in front of a computer doing accounting, I thought of Garvey and the Black Star Line and the pomp and circumstance of the parades through the center of Harlem. Actually, I didn't really think of that. I was young and intoxicated by two things, which were not limited to being black. I was excited. My children were young. I sought conviction and a dream that I could actualize through effort and hard work. Perhaps it was the American in me. It could all be worth it.
As a note, minimum wage does not exist for the self-employed. If you want to know why some of the owners mistreat their workers, ask them about how they work. The answer is ego and do unto others as you do unto yourself. The hours they work, they sleepless nights, are the result of their lessons taught to themselves by themselves on how to treat a person who works for you. One counts money, hours, time, and investments; but then often stops counting when it comes to themselves. Some will call this, simple capitalist intoxication-the dream of being rich; but I bear witness to a dream (now deferred) that imagines the sacrifice produces tangible results and suggests a small, snail paced, progress that allows one the freedom of being in sync with their ideals.
I confess, late at night when I was tired, with a to do list two or three pages long, that I thought, perhaps I endured, the same challenges my ancestors had confronted. The thought of Garvey's Negro World and the distribution of African American content seemed to be my mission well connected to the thought of one owning ones destiny. Call it American Dreaming' (Jay-Z 2007).
In the clouds of smoke, been playin' this Marvin
Mama forgive me, should be thinkin' 'bout Harvard
But that's too far away, niggas are starvin'
Ain't nothin' wrong with aim, just gotta change the target
I thought of the small businesses that would somehow build an economic infrastructure that would provide jobs and opportunities on a local and national level. Now, I'm not so sure.
Think about it, the publishing industry in the last few years has seen a series of dynamic African American authors take center stage in the world of literature. Claudia Rankine's Citizen,one of the most prized literary books of 2014-2015 was published by Greywolf Press, a top notch literary press whose diversity is notable; but the press is not Black owned. Citizen has racked up a series of awards including The Pen Open Book Literary Award, Finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry, and Winner of the National Book Critic's Circle Award in Poetry. During this same time period Kwame Alexander's Crossover, was winner of the John Newbury Medal for the Most Distinguished Contribution to American Literature for Children. Crossover was published by Houghton Mifflin, though notably rejected by several publisher before being accepted. Most recently, Ta Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me published by Speigel and Grau, an imprint of Penguin Random House, was released this past summer to national acclaim, in what seems to be the race book event of the new century. Coates is touted as the literary descendant of James Baldwin and more specifically the successor of the literary estate belonging to the Fire Next Time.
Coates' personal situation best reflects the lay of the land. His father Paul Coates, is the owner of the independent, Black Classic Press, which specializes in publishing classic African American texts, which include the works of the late great Yosef Ben Jochanan, who died earlier this year, along with George Jackson, and J.A. Rogers. At surface glance, one might imagine that in the spirit of independence, Coates has the capacity to publish his own son's book. After all, if we are to buy books black it follows as a logical conclusion that we should publish our books black so that more jobs are created or higher tiers of the industry.
Theoretically it makes sense, but in practicality it does not. Coates' decision to not publish with his father, reflects the true practicalities of big business. Now, I am thinking of the Prince of Egypt. Yes, the Disney flick where Moses steps into the arena of the Egyptian magicians who sing a ditty for him about "You are playing with the big boys now." It's a funky tune, that invokes Set, Ra, Anubis, and the Egyptian deities we learn in the African-centered community. In league with the big-boys, one knows that you can publish all the books you want, but may still be outside of the commerce of ideas in the empire of language. Coates' decision is not a question of authenticity or commitment. Instead, it reflects the same practicality everyday working people exercise everyday. A few dollars more is all that is needed to justify getting another job. And for Coates it is not simply a few dollars, but potentially millions. Book publishing is a game of assets. Assets are not simply money made; they appreciate and depreciate. Linking up with more advanced publishers is not a question of commitment to some black ideal, it is a question of who has the ability to better increase the value of your manuscript(read asset) in the marketplace. It is the same logic invoked when we think to move to a "better neighborhood" to gain our children an opportunity to enter a better school. It is the same logic invoked when we we buy a house in a neighborhood full of white people because we know it will appreciate. Some of us can afford that. Some of us cannot. Regardless, this is the logic. Life and business are too often about advantage. What could be considered confusing is in reality very instructive.
Publishing is big business, ruled by capital as much as any other. Though the empire of language exists technically in the world of the invisible, like all businesses visible assets dominate ones ability to operate within it.
And when one wants to publish a New York Times Bestseller or an award winning book-lawyers, office space, credit, and marketing capacity all influence the fluctuating value of the text.
It as though the world of literature promotes the same myths of the NBA or any other entertainment industry. We believe our individual effort to be definitive, while those who manage institutions and power know individuals are a dime a dozen.
No doubt some of us are special. But who would imagine the NBA would folding if one or two players were not elevated to the ranks and given contracts. We are a country of well over three hundred million people. We are special; yes, but then again we are not.
And perhaps this is the place where literature differs. The Bible, the first and last of all great books, because it deals with God and how you gonna get to heaven, gives us insight into the precious status given to literature within the empire.
The writer is trained to dream of creating literature that functions like Bibles within the culture. We dream of the canon and books that transcend the mundane and everyday. We want to write the book that will be read fifty, one-hundred years from now.
And so do the publishers. Someone once told me how Toni Morrison's agent paid for her children's college education with Toni's books. Books are assets within the market. They are not simply an expression of an individual's skill and quest to document the human experience via words. Isn't that what makes the writer so glamorous-the potential of a celebrity status that extends even beyond the current epoch of time?
Imagine us developing property on a gentrified city in D.C. where crack dealers harassed single mom's and set their children out on the street to hustle drugs with the risks of being sent to jail that will pay us returns for the rest of our life. A great book is Clifton Terrace just off of 14th Street in D.C. where young men hustling drugs engaged in intense battle with the Nation of Islam over the safety of citizens on the street. But that wasn't really the issue. Just hold the property, baby, hang on in there. Ten years later the property has tripled in value, there are regulations, rent restrictions and the like, but the booked value is tens of millions. Wherever black assets are, they are undervalued. They only need whites to come in and juxtapose themselves, flip the switch on the wheels of industry, to make them work better. It is the Bluest Eye, that book published first, almost under radar, that becomes powerful backlist when Beloved wins the Pulitzer Prize. And backlist is like gentrified property steadily increasing with an almost unlimited range-until the copyright runs out.
In a capitalist system the question is how do your assets appreciate?
In poetry African American authors in 2014 to 2015 were at the top of the game. Michael Afaa Weaver won the Kingsley Tufts Award in 2014 whose prize amount is $100,000 for his book the Government of Nature. In 2014 Terrance Hayes a MacArthur Genius Grant awarded whose prize amount is currently 625,000 dollars to be awarded over five years. Hayes is author of numerous books including Lighthead, which won the National Book Award, and most recently How to Be Drawn published by Penguin Books. By no means are these the only authors, though they are some of the most well-versed and talented who have been working in the world of poetry for decades perfecting their craft. Without a doubt they are some of the most disciplined, revered, and gifted writers of their generation. The winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2014, Gregory Pardlo, author of Digest was an African American. His book is published by Four Way Books, a small black outfit-all black employees, all black staff, even the printers are black. You know I'm joking.
(Since this essay was first formulated there have been several more awards given including the Kingsley Tufts and Kate Tufts Awards going to African Americans this year. Another notable is the Yale Younger Series being awarded to an African American poet this year. It is the oldest book prize in the country and no African Americans males have won the award in its almost one hundred year history.)