3 Decades of My Black Revolutionary Bookshelf
We thought we could save people’s lives with the manna to be found in books — and they only got better over time
I began my journey into activism alone, a freshman at Ohio State University, still part of the city in which I was raised but a world away from everything I had known. I don’t think I was on campus a month before attending my first proper Black student event. As the African drumming and dance was winding down, I noticed a table full of books manned by a tall Black man in a suit and bowtie. I knew next to nothing about Black Muslims or the Nation of Islam and so struck up a conversation with the seller. I do not remember his name, but I remember him referring to me frequently as “brother,” which endeared me to whatever he was selling, and in short order, I quickly spent my only $20 on what would be my first copy of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s Message to the Blackman.
In my dorm room that night, I burned through the text, devouring its brief chapters as if they were Girl Scout cookies (which was not unlike how the book had been sold to me). It was my first truly revolutionary purchase. I never came close to subscribing to the tenets of Islam (I already had a religion in food), but that book set me on a course that I would say changed my life — if it didn’t already feel every bit like destiny.
I would buy that book several more times over the years as copies got away from me or were borrowed forever by the equally curious. Many, many more books would come as money allowed or fellow activists were foolish enough to lend me their stash: The Isis Papers, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Yurugu, Visions for Black Men, Stolen Legacy, Black Athena, Before the Mayflower, Malcolm X: The Last Speeches. I still have my original copy of Chancellor Williams’ The Destruction of Black Civilization, read to the point of decimation and bound by cardboard to keep its pages together.
Libraries were not yet under assault by the internet, and with the growing ease of self-publishing, my public library’s shelves were a banquet of cultures and ideas. I may have been a college dropout, but I was building a syllabus in Blackness worthy of a PhD.
Black culture in the early ’90s is frequently characterized by hip-hop’s rise to cultural domination and justifiably so. Hip-hop is the most powerful Black creation in the last 50 years. But the late ’80s and early ’90s was also the height of Afrocentrism; between an art form through which artists like Public Enemy and X-Clan were speaking directly to that political moment and a swelling tide of Black intellectualism aimed at activists both in the street and in the classroom, it was a glorious time to learn thyself. Much of the literature was still independent and underground then. You had to know where to look for it. Major publishers were barely publishing Black authors, so every book by a Black scholar felt like a mixtape.
Being young in our activism, my boys and I were alchemists. We thought the answer to everything was knowledge. “Knowledge of self” and “knowledge is power” were not catchphrases to us. We thought we could save people’s lives with the manna to be found in books. The books were power — or at least they made us feel powerful. There were rooms we could enter after reading certain things, well-meaning cliques we could engage with who had agendas through which we could do community work. Our language changed. Our diets changed. I couldn’t afford new clothes, so my fashion didn’t change, but I had more African medallions than any one person had a right to.
There was no Google. There was no computer in your pocket with which you could look up anything at any hour of the day. Knowledge of self was a thing you had to literally acquire, had to go into the streets and buy or barter to get. I started working at the public library during that time and became relentless in my self-education. Libraries were not yet under assault by the internet, and with the growing ease of self-publishing, my public library’s shelves were a banquet of cultures and ideas. I may have been a college dropout, but I was building a syllabus in Blackness worthy of a PhD.
A good library is a revolutionary’s greatest asset. A collection of political literature feels like an enormous puzzle that, if you could only figure out how every thesis fits together, might reveal a map to freedom. If you could just get George G.M. James’ chapter on the Egyptian mystery system in Stolen Legacy to parley with Marimba Ani’s concept of asili and other religious precepts, you could perhaps turn your leather African medallions into gold doubloons after all.
Black activists have never been a monolith, but we were a lot of things then. Most of my set was Afrocentric, sometimes Africentric. Sometimes African — Afrikan, if you were hardcore — and sometimes, when you didn’t want the argument, Pan-African. A mixture of them was fine so long as you’d read enough to be able to weather the interrogation of your decision. An Afrocentric Pan-Africanist seems redundant until you see one with a gun arguing with one holding a book. “Black” was not enough for a while, until it was again. Since so much of the movement was education-based then, it was okay to fumble through an identity or two along the way. We didn’t have the language then to call it intersectionality, and there was no social media to capture the speed bumps of your identity fishing into perpetuity.
Being Afrocentric was an easy call for me because it was a philosophy that easily ramped into a value system at will. It was not a religion or a political party or a nutritional regimen. It was a way to reevaluate history and the world. We could point to its creator — Molefi Kete Asante — and find him pointing back through books, speaking to us in lay terms, sometimes in as few as a hundred pages. You could go to a Black bookseller and score Asante’s cleanest work, Afrocentricity, for $10 and have your worldview changed in one sitting. Afrocentricity was like learning a martial art, teaching its adherents how to redirect the colonizing flow of racist energies away from you or how to level devastating historical blows in classrooms that didn’t get the memo. It was a toolbox of lenses through which to see the world and find yourself in it, which was and remains deeply empowering.
Somewhere around 1995, I saw Cornel West speak in person. This was at the beginning of his rise into the mainstream, when White people who had read Race Matters could call Cornel West by name on sight, but not many of them. The lecture took place at Ohio State University’s campus in his pre-scarf period. Later that day he appeared at OSU’s Frank W. Hale Black Cultural Center in what was being billed as a debate against the venerable scholar John Henrik Clarke. The building was packed as much for Clarke as it was for West, which is to say it was attended almost exclusively by Black students, faculty, and community activists. West was on top of the Black academic world then, but Clarke was the people’s champion, the kind of pugilist who relished in delivering cold lines like “half of human history was over before most of Africa and Asia knew that a European was in the world.”
The event ended up being a love fest, where West recounted years sitting at Clarke’s feet and spent much of his time holding up his elder, not dismantling his work. West’s lens was (and remains) focused on modern movements and building coalitions between various schools of thought manifesting into a radical democracy and political action. Clarke’s body of work was predominantly historical, with an unapologetically African-centered cultural commitment. As the two teachers made clear through a warm and uncompromisingly intellectual back and forth, Clarke’s work was several bricks in the foundation of West’s educational activism. Anybody who came looking for a battle missed the point.
There exists a raw VHS recording of the day on YouTube, a blurry testimony of a moment in my life when I realized my activism had changed. I came out of that event not knowing all of the history they referred to or even knowing how their missions connected, but that wasn’t the real problem: I didn’t know how to make a century’s worth of scholarship work in the streets. The most brutal takeaway was that knowledge had never been enough. The application of knowledge — craft, wisdom, vision — was where the train kept popping off the track for me. I could not then internalize the knowledge in a way to answer a very concrete question like “How can I feed my child with knowledge?” I had heard a version of that question so many times back then I had lost count. I did not know how to make the knowledge pragmatic, how to get a single mother from John Henrik Clarke to eating. Knowledge of nutrition may lead you to growing your own food, but many days pass between finishing a book on gardening and enjoying the meal. All of the knowledge seemed to come too late.
Understand that none of the failings of my activism or the movement overall were because of any flaws in Afrocentricity. Like most things, it all boils down to execution. When we tried to make Afrocentricity a political movement instead of utilizing it for its intended purpose — as a self-righting educational tool — the work couldn’t save the lives we were attempting to sell it to. Gangster rap had a better onboarding program than we did, and their marketing was off the chain.
Fortunately, Black books changed over the past 20 years. While Black authors still make up a paltry fraction of the literary output released in the U.S. every year, there is no denying that the fraction is growing. But what’s also important to note is that the nature of the fraction has also changed, especially in the work intended for activist audiences. When I look at my bookshelves now, my old scrolls weaved into more recent acquisitions, I can see the holes we did not know we needed to fill back then and how not filling them caused us to falter along the way.
The revolutionary bookshelf now is more personally interrogative, more interested in the histories we make as we go. More and more, they are journeys concerned with Black interior, dissections that we were too macho to admit we needed back then. For all our talk of the mind, we did not consider therapy a viable act of self-care. Many of the books meant to save my life now are by Black queer authors, which was a person so aggressively taboo back then that it was downright dangerous to present oneself as such even in saving circles. The scholarship of activism has historically been brutally heteronormative, believing that any acknowledgment of nonconforming sexualities was literally driving Black families to extinction. I weep reflecting on the days Audre Lorde spent dedicating her life to Black people while having her existence side-eyed by our scholars as anti-Black.
Now, I run my fingers along the spines of books by brilliant Black writers who mine the veins of every aspect of Blackness: Kiese Laymon, Tressie McMillan Cottom, and Mychal Denzel Smith expose our vulnerabilities for the strengths that they are; Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Heather McGhee, and Ibram X. Kendi reach back through history to pull out contemporary lessons and political strategies; Colson Whitehead, Robert Jones Jr., Yaa Gyasi, and scores of other fiction writers recreate an America in which Black people are the point and not merely shadows of whiteness. Their books sit next to the ones that made me who I am, Frantz Fanon in congress with Claudia Rankine, Na’im Akbar wrestling with Roxane Gay.
During slavery, enslaved people were forbidden to read, and it is easy to see why. Knowledge is indeed power, and there is no doubt that, allowed the gift of literacy, slavery would have met its end in swift order. I derive an almost perverse pleasure being seen with a book in mixed company, a tip of the cotton picker’s hat to the now-defeated gods of plantations. My home is filled with books in defiance of both ignorance and history. It is a canon I can almost feed a child with.