Harlem Book Fair 2014 © j-No via Flickr

Solos from Harlem: The Harlem Book Fair and Cultural Continuity

A sultry Saturday July 18th, Harlem 2015. Fair booths line West 135th St. from Malcolm X Blvd. to Frederick Douglass Blvd., each individual booth casting its tent-shade upon a different kind of literary ware. Hawking these literary wares, a varied cast of characters, including authors and publishers, do their best to court the throngs of potential readers or curious writers passing by. And then there is always the author’s hope of meeting an agent or a publisher and there is the publisher’s hope of meeting a distributor or client. This is the 17th Annual Harlem Book Fair.

This annual event is a vibrant collection of author talks and readings – vendor booths from which authors and publishers do their best to sell their books, poetry slams, entertainment and spoken word, and literary networking. The type of books represented here runs a full gamut, from academic and political to self-help and philosophy, from poetry to pop romance, from history to horror, from picture books for children to erotica strictly for adults and more. Largely a showcase for small presses and self-published authors, the HBF offers a valuable opportunity for fledgling authors, many of whom travel from book fair to book fair throughout the country, to find outlets for their work and increase their readership. Additionally, the HBF, which is produced by the African-American book review, QBR, bestows the Phillis Wheatley Book Awards, named for the first published African-American woman and poet.

Walking through this book bizarre, a person is liable to meet a whole slew of folks who are there for various reasons and ready to exchange  ideas like a kind of currency. A cotton-mouthed communist might try to sell you a “Socialist Newsweekly Published in the Interests of Working People” for a buck. He’ll rattle on about the Cuban Five while a young lady approaches you with a satchel full of promotional copies of a self-published novel called Memoirs of the Immortal. She’ll hand you one free of charge as you move on to the next booth and meet a man by the name of James M. Abraham. James M. Abraham is the publisher and editor at Book Broker Publishers, a firm located in Port Charlotte, FL. He is a writer, too. He wrote his first book at the age of seven. It was about Squanto and how he helped the pilgrims, an apt subject considering that the bulk of the books on display at the Book Broker Publishers booth are of historical interest.

About the offerings on display he says, “I don’t publish trash. I want to put out books that elevate.”

He is here from Florida today to network and increase the sphere of his readership. “If I don’t sell a single book today,” he says, “As long as I get a client it will be worthwhile.”

The books he is selling such as Aaron Burr: Adventurer or Lily: Riding the Color Lines present a striking contrast to the book entitled My Husband’s Whore, which can be found two booths over. My Husband’s Whore was self-published by Raquel Williams who travels across the country, from book fair to book fair, to places like Atlanta and Dallas, selling this title and others written by her.

When asked how her books are selling, she says, “I have a good reader base through Amazon and e-readers and all that. You always want to make a profit at these things because you have to pay for the booth and everything. I always do well at this one though.”

Indeed, the Harlem Book Fair is the nation’s largest African-American focused book fair and a premier literary event drawing on a whole spectrum of cultural discourses and interests. This serves to explain the diversity of authors and topics accounted for here and how the fair-goer may stumble from My Husband’s Whore to a book called Fostering Resilience and Well-Being in Children and Families in Poverty: Why Hope Still Matters. This title, published by Oxford University Press and written by Dr. Valerie Maholmes is about the science of hope and its presence here signifies the juxtaposition at the HBF of pop culture with academia. Lying somewhere in between these two arenas, and slightly to the left, there are the self-help books, such as that written by Rodney Flowers, called, Get Up: I Can’t. I Will. I Did… Here’s How! Flowers was paralyzed by a high school football injury and confined to a wheelchair.

“Now,” he says, “As a result of determination, faith, and persistent effort, I no longer use a wheelchair. I am now able to effectively execute my duties in my job and productively participate as a member of the community without the use of a wheelchair. We can overcome any challenge or obstacle.”

Then, just across the way, there is the children’s book title, Do You Like Pancakes?, written by Andrea Chavis-Douglas and which incorporates her grandson as a character. The title summarizes the plot line fairly well.

After skimming through these brightly illustrated pages you might come to the booth of Jeremy Geltzer, an entertainment lawyer who also writes about the history of cinema. His book, Race Films: 50 Years of African American Cinema, will serve as the basis for the talk he will give at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

The Schomurg Center is the host venue of the Harlem Book Fair and, along with a few other facilities, hosts several talks throughout the duration of the fair, such as one called “Silencing Black Writers In the USA,” which is presented by the National Writers Union (UAW Local 1981). Also on the agenda, “The Akan of Ghana: Aspects of Past and Present Practices,” which is given by author, Kofi Akim.

It is also at the Schomburg Center that one begins to realize that the HBF is but another solo played out of Harlem’s horn in a long and ongoing jazz composition that began, that is, in the vein with which we now associate it, with the Great Migration in 1905. However, Harlem’s cultural notes really started to ring hot in the 1920s and 30s with the Harlem Renaissance, which had at its forefront such notable poets and artists as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Zora Neal Hurston, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and Aaron Douglas, to name but a few. The Schomburg Center is a research library and is the site of the Works Progress Administration – funded murals painted in 1935, which depict a grand menagerie of African American culture and Cab Calloway in his pristine white suit conducting his band. The Schomburg Center was named for Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, who was the curator for the center from 1932 to his death in 1938. It was from Schomburg’s personal collection of books, manuscripts, etchings and paintings, exceeding 10,000 items, that this branch of the New York Public Library emerged. Schomburg, a black man born in Puerto Rico, is an example of how Harlem, which was originally a Dutch area, became a kind of garden for the cultural growth of demographic groups that were largely restricted in other sectors of the city and country at large.

Today, a walk through Harlem seems to lead both forward and back in time. A stroll down Astor Row or Strivers Row shows beautifully preserved urban architecture in the townhouses and row houses built in the last twenty years of the 19th century, when lower classes were able to inhabit these delightful dwellings for cheap simply because they were somewhat removed from the city proper. City College, or the Harvard of the Proletariat, stands prominent on the hill as a beacon of education offered to youth of immigrant families or economically deprived persons of any race. The Apollo Theater still stands and remembers so many important performers who have held its stage. Sylvia’s Restaurant, dishing out its hearty and delicious portions of soul food, is still hopping. The Abyssinian Baptist Church still symbolizes a proclamation of social and religious independence and pride. The Cotton Club and the Savoy and Renaissance Ballrooms have fallen, but the dancing footsteps of their ghosts still resonate.

Although much of the latter half of the 20th century saw Harlem succumb to poverty-fueled crimes, drugs, and violence, events like the Harlem Book Fair act as part of a forward looking cultural continuity that seeks to expand and diversify. While many historical landmarks are politically preserved, there are new businesses opening up in Harlem and the neighborhood continues to attract artists of all kinds. It may in fact be the ties to the past that allow Harlem to progress into the future. In the various aspects of old Harlem that are preserved, there are unifying ideological symbols that transcend racial distinctions. These symbols represent, in part, the freedom to create, hope and act freely according to one’s history, both personal and social. By preserving the spirit of the neighborhood, a spirit that defined itself most articulately during the decades of the Harlem Renaissance, Harlem may protect itself from the pitfalls of gentrification felt in other parts of the city and retain a certain essential character even as it evolves. In this way, the memories and dreams of Harlem’s history form a kind of musical scale within which the community may improvise in ever-changing solos such as the Harlem Book Fair.