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  • Writer's pictureMuni Suleiman

Outreading Racism

In the summer of 2020, books flew off the shelves. What now?

By Muni Suleiman

In the first week of June 2020, seven of 10 of Amazon’s top-selling books were about race. A Kentucky bookseller told the New York Times, “People want these books in hand today … They feel like it’s something they can do right now.” Though children’s books, volumes of poetry, and essays were intermittently in the mix, a formal reading list crystalized quickly—an antiracist Core, so to speak: Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race.

This phenomenon, kickstarted by the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement during summer 2020, quickly spread nationwide, seemingly as a response to a newfound visibility of police violence for those not impacted by it. As Black Lives Matter protests grew across the country, so did the demand for pertinent books to read. Bookstores across the country raced to restock these antiracist titles, whose ubiquity was accompanied by virtual reading groups and Canva infographics about the history of police abolition movements that made their rounds on social media.

Kennedy Winslow, CC ’24, characterized the summer of 2020 as a time during which the abolitionist movement became “casual.” “Other than the infographic industrial complex … my mom was eating CNN up and they would not let Ibram X. Kendi rest,” she told me. “I think that [book]’s just like a published infographic to me. As far as literature, those [How to Be an Antiracist, White Fragility, and Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste] are the big three that I saw getting tossed around like, ‘Let’s become abolitionists.’”

The turn to reading lasted for months as a meaningful answer to political and social upheaval: Oluo’s book, published in 2018, sold around 30,000 copies in the year before George Floyd’s murder. In the twelve months after, it sold over 300,000 copies. The recent confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, during which Senator Ted Cruz verbally attacked books like Alex Vitale’s The End of Policing and Kendi’s Antiracist Baby, launched another wave of eager book-buying.

From the beginning, booksellers and authors across the country expressed cautious optimism about this reactive reading. Most simply, they wondered how often buying actually entailed reading, which itself isn’t even guaranteed to inspire antiracist learning. Was book-buying in droves just “something they can do right now,” or could it—has it—led to meaningful change?

Those in Columbia’s own community were no exception to this book-buying frenzy, its members turning to fixtures like Book Culture to inform themselves and appease some national conscience. That summer—which Devon Dunn, Vice President of Buying at Book Culture, identified as the “first wave” of book-buying—the store struggled to keep up with the demand for White Fragility and How to Be an Antiracist. During the 2020 election season, a second wave inaugurated a jump in consumption of abolitionist texts, such as the works of Angela Davis and Vitale’s The End of Policing, which more critically challenged authority in America, only for those sales too to significantly slow once President Biden was inaugurated.

Reflecting on this distinct cultural response, Dunn shared an experience they say they’ll never forget: “A lot of people of a certain older white demographic decided [White Fragility] was going to be their intro book. It went out of stock immediately and when we told them the world is out, you will have to be patient, they either immediately were like, ‘Okay, then cancel my order,’ or … I had a large chunk of orders of that book in specific where people paid for it, and they waited for it, but then never picked it up.” This performative ordering, as Dunn dubbed it, has cast serious doubts on the impacts of the texts on their purchasers—if they came into physical contact with the books at all.

Illustration by Taylor Yingshi

In the context of Columbia, it’s worth considering the store’s customer base. Students, in the shadow of the University, spend a lot of time in the theoretical world. It’s always a question whether their academic reading will have tangible applications to the world outside of the 116th gates. Other residents, especially those a product of higher education, make this environment one that tends to posit reading as a solution and salve.

Further uptown, Sister’s Uptown Bookstore and Cultural Center, which was closed to the public due to Covid, also witnessed similar trends with high demands of not only Kendi’s and DiAngelo’s works, but also Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race. Perched on 156th and Amsterdam since its founding in 2000, Sister’s Uptown is the only Black-owned general bookstore in Manhattan.

Kori N. Wilson, Vice President and Manager of Operations, echoed Dunn’s account of selective ordering. In summer of 2020, she explained, many corporations found Sister’s after seeking out Black booksellers to buy from: “These corporations were purchasing in bulk to give away to their employees. We had some [employees] calling us like, ‘Why did you send me this book? Why do I have it?’ Some were like, ‘I’ll just send it back and you can donate it or something.’”

The doubt Wilson cast on these single-title transactions, though, was rooted in the specific history and mission of Sister’s Uptown, which she runs with Janifer Wilson, her mother and the founder of the store. As Dunn had told me, “Anybody who says that a bookstore choosing what books you sell … isn’t a form of speech, I think they’re fooling themselves.” This active curation of texts is very much the founding ethos of Sister’s, which views building a bookstore as a way to generate community knowledge. The store houses African diasporic literature as well as works by academics and other prominent figures in African American history, philosophy, psychology, and sociology. Wilson shared that the duo had, in part, grew the shop’s expansive stock by referring to and seeking out the works cited in the books they already owned.

“It's a long road,” Wilson said, “but that’s part of our mission, to make sure that the information is there, it’s here, it’s available. [That] these books aren’t just going out of print, or going into obscurity and never heard of again, because it’s pertinent information for all, but especially for people of color who need to always remain self-aware, especially in this climate.”

During our interview at the store, Wilson paused twice to greet two separate visitors. The first was a community organizer who had watched Wilson grow up. They reminisced about the recent developments of Sister’s during the pandemic years. The second visitor, a growingly familiar passerby within the neighborhood, recalled a conversation she had with Wilson’s mother earlier that month. Regardless of her level of familiarity with the visitors, Wilson greeted each with a warm welcome of “Hello, Brother,” or “Hello, Sister.” My first time entering the store to request an interview, Wilson’s mother greeted me with similar warmth before asking if I was new to the area.

Of the bookstore’s guests, Kori explained: “There are community organization connections and there’s the ‘I just came through, I was down and out, and a sister talked to me and she helped me out.’ They never forget that part, you know. It’s not about monetary gain. It’s really, especially from my mom’s perspective, a passion project. She’s not in this to get rich. She’s here to be a keeper of this space and just keep it going for people who need it.”

It’s not just the books themselves that are important—though Wilson added, emphatically, “We have always seen the written word as impactful, period.” It’s that the existence and upkeep of Sister’s Uptown is, as she put it, “our form of active activism”: simultaneously an action plan for the future and a demonstration that, in a time of street protests, “we’ve been part of this.”

But the content of the books themselves have of course been central in the Wilsons’ minds. Contemporary books about race often veer either into academic or commercial territory; the former can be rendered inaccessible with academic verbiage, while the latter can endorse a reductionist view on a very nuanced issue. An active balance of nuance and accessibility is required to reach audiences. At Sister’s, Wilson described the wave of large corporate orders—sometimes up to 500 copies of a single antiracist title—as a Catch-22: “Of course you want to be economically sustained so that we can stay here for another two decades, but at the same time, we were like, ‘Oh, this is kind of BS.’”

Dr. Angela Simms, an assistant professor of sociology and urban studies at Barnard, stressed to me that the often-simplified language common in commercial books on race is not the solution to “unnecessarily obtuse” academic texts. “Sometimes the reductionist language is actually part of the politics … What aspects of my identity are you using, are you selling, are you making money on?”

As consumers have interacted with these types of books over the past two years, their attitude toward them has also changed, for better and for worse. Dunn and Wilson pointed out meaningful increases in sales of diverse literature, whether it takes the form of history texts or fiction with a more representative array of characters, across books for readers of all ages.

Indeed, Dunn observed a pointed turn away from books explicitly branded as activist texts toward “stories of diversity,” often featuring characters that specifically do not look the readers. Of the change, they said, “I don't quite know what that means, if it means anything.”

Winslow offered an answer. “It feels like a maintenance period of ‘We did all this,’” she said, “meaning commercialized revolution where you feel secure, if you're not too far left, in the fact that there are people of color and Black people in power.” Visibility is not enough, she suggested, because it allows liberal book-consumers to take representation (both political and literary) as restitution: “They’re like, alright, we can live to fight another day, and in the meantime, we’ll read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.”

Regardless of what it exactly means, the fickle directionality of customers’ desires proves itself to be a strong force time and time again. As purchases of the informal 2020 reading list slowed, Wilson found herself with excess stock that had been acquired to keep pace with summer interest, “It’s the complete 180 from when it was in resurgence mode.” After six months, Sister’s began selling such titles with “deep discounts, or returns to publishers, because they weren’t selling. The moment had passed, basically.” And that moment had, she said, briefly catapulted Sister’s from a five-figure business to a seven-figure business “now going back down.” She was clear to emphasize that the original fervor for these texts was not a bad thing—but it was decidedly not sustainable for a bookstore.

What may ensure a sustainable future for the bookstore is another change Wilson noted—one in customership. Previously, Wilson could expect an older crowd familiar with Sister’s work in the neighborhood. But Washington Heights, “being a residential neighborhood, was transitioning, so we were seeing families and a lot of college students that were in the area discovering us and being like, ‘Wow, this is gonna be my spot.’”

Not only did engagement from patrons change, but engagement between bookstores changed as well. Sister’s banded with other Black-owned bookstores for the Black Bookstore Collective during the summer of 2020, focusing on the survival and the authenticity of their businesses and their communities.

Janifer Wilson’s decision to add a cultural center to the bookstore in 2007 was driven by the same two tenets. “We needed to have events and things of that nature to bring people inside the space. We’re in a more residential area and there is not a lot of foot traffic,” Wilson explained of her mother’s rationale. “It plays more into our own community activism. We as a community of people need financial workshops, mental health conversations.”

Sister’s very expansion from a bookstore to a bookstore and cultural center aptly demonstrates that reading is, as Simms emphasized, “necessary but not sufficient.” Reading can often come as an anti-community effort, when authors, particularly white ones, “assert that they have more expertise or authority … or that they know the totality of what actually matters.” As we learn in the classroom, there is always more reading, but the task never stands alone: It is followed by independent interpretation, group discussion, thoughtful questioning, and further contemplation.

Classroom environments themselves can also be environments where college students are challenged to contend with the lack of immediate resolutions for these topics and ideas. Especially in social sciences such as sociology, or in urban studies or ethnicity and race studies—Winslow’s major and concentration—we’re often left with questions of “What now?” when it comes to abolition and antiracism. For example, taking Colonization/Decolonization has allowed Winslow to recognize she can both love and question the seminar discussions. “There’s only so much you can do in a classroom, especially a Columbia classroom, with decolonization, ’cause this is a colonial institution. It's like, ‘Alright, how do we decolonize?’ and ‘On what scale are we decolonizing?”

The theoretical world Columbia students inhabit under the shadow of the University compounds this problem. Confronted with fast-paced curricula, students are told to interact with expansive topics armed with little more than short discussion posts. “Not only is it abstracted to hell, but it’s also historicized,” Winslow described. “People read Du Bois and they’re like, ‘Okay, that was in the past.’ It's like, ‘No, I realize you have no context for this, but I'm looking at you from behind the veil.’”

Simms encourages college students to recognize that they are often in a complicated position marked by a lack of direct authority as they begin “making their way in the system.” Reading is one, but not the only, personal action we can undertake. Even asking questions of authority figures can provoke awareness and accountability for explicit and implicit biases, incremental reminders of the everyday moments that can still perpetuate anti-Blackness. But there are certainly more explicit forms of community service and outreach, some of which include programs promoted by Columbia. Yet, Winslow noted that most individuals who commit the regular time to such programs are “Black people who are already either A. from Harlem, or B. places just like Harlem, or people who are impacted by these things.” When the default of the current system is to perpetuate anti-Blackness, intentionality is necessary to open up space for various forms of social justice. Though purposefully reading books from diverse perspectives and characters is important, intentionality also includes actively extending beyond the text and doing the work in the actual underrepresented communities. The books, even the distinctly commercial ones, are thus useful to the extent that they remind us of the value of learning from external sources—when the page prompts us to engage with those around us.

Reminded of the experience of selling books like White Fragility, Dunn reflected, “You can write the pages and you can sell them the book and you could even sit there, I suppose, and force someone to read all the words … But you never know what people absorb and how they process it … the last hurdle is the internal hurdles.”


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