Books, Blacks, and Bigots
Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me.
For nine years (c.1991 — 2000), Vertigo Books operated near Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. It was always touch-and-go, and when the property owner raised the rent, Vertigo went — to nearby College Park, Maryland, near the University of Maryland. There it lasted another nine years before throwing in the towel to Amazon.
Vertigo was always known for hosting book-signings by progressive authors. Shortly before it moved from DC, I attended such a talk. I no longer remember the speaker, but I vividly recall the conversation I had with another patron, a white male in his 60s who sat next to me. Somehow he brought the conversation to race and declared to me that African Americans don't read books.
This claim had been made before. In fact, it used to be a cliché. In African American culture before the Civil Rights Movement, there was even a bitter joke about it, popularized no doubt by frustrated black intellectuals: "Want to keep something secret from a black man? Hide it in a book!" I googled the phrase in 2016 and got 529 hits, so the phrase lives on.
My own experience has been very different. In 1963, as an undergraduate at Carleton College in Minnesota, I spent part of my junior year "abroad" at Mississippi State University. Mississippi State was then the largest "all-white" institution of higher learning in the world outside South Africa, as some people told me with pride, others with chagrin. (I placed quotation marks around "all-white" because Chinese Mississippians could attend, as could dark-complexioned students from south India. A better term might be "non-black.")
I enjoyed my months at Mississippi State and learned a lot, but it was very different from Carleton. One difference related to books, or, rather, their absence. My impression was, students at Mississippi State didn't read books.
I was a (budding) sociologist. We count things. So, to test my impression, I counted all the books owned by all the students in my dormitory wing. There were twelve double rooms, so I counted the books owned by 23 students. (I did not include myself.) I counted everything — pulp novels, even comic books — but not textbooks. I was interested in books bought voluntarily.
The 23 students owned 51 books. One owned 42. He was an intellectual. Another owned maybe 5. A couple of others owned one or two.
That was it. Most of my dorm-mates had no books in their rooms and may have never owned one, other than those required for class. Compared to Carleton, a monastery of pointy-headed intellectuals, the contrast was stunning. Many Carleton students owned 51 books all by themselves, doubtless with still more at home.
During my stay in Mississippi, for four days I became an undergraduate at another college, Tougaloo. Although more than 90 percent of its students had graduated from black public schools in Mississippi, which the white power structure deliberately kept separate and unequal, Tougaloo had a thriving intellectual subculture. Again, I counted books — all the books owned by my four roommates, excluding textbooks. (One roommate was away on exchange at Oberlin College, but his stuff was still there, so I could count his books.) The four owned 48 books among them, about a dozen each. A mode of twelve is infinitely more than a mode of zero, both in multiplication and culture.
So I knew better than to capitulate to the contention of my new acquaintance at Vertigo Books. I told him some of the foregoing, but he would not hear it. "Blacks never come in bookstores," he said. Obviously he had never been in a black bookstore. At the time, the DC area boasted three important ones. My book (with co-editor) The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader, premiered at one in 2010, and although only about 30 people attended the small venue, it sold about 30 of my books, including earlier titles. "I come here all the time," my antagonist finished, "and you never see a black person here."
A few seconds later, a stunning young African American woman sat down next to him on the other side from me, accompanied by her handsome boyfriend. Both were eminently employable as models. Before I could comment, Bridget Warren, co-owner of Vertigo, began to speak, introducing that day's author.
After the talk and question period, I thought about bringing up to the man what had just happened, but I concluded that doing so would just rub it in. Besides, I imagined that his response would be to claim the couple as a unique exception that somehow "proved the rule." The problem with bigots is that they can always dismiss positive experiences with the "opposite race" as exceptions, leaving their negative generalization unscathed.
People, especially white people, rarely generalize negatively about their own group, of course, because doing so would put themselves down. Moreover, they know other white people who don't conform to the generalization, so they dismiss the negative behavior as idiosyncratic.
We have real data about book reading. In January 2014, the Pew Research Center asked a sample of adult Americans whether they had read a book in the past calendar year. 76 percent said yes. Interestingly, age and residence (urban/suburban/rural) made little difference. Income of course did, but even among households making less than $30,000/year, two-thirds said they had read a book. Gender mattered, as all booksellers know: 82 percent of women said yes, compared to 69 percent of men. So did going on to college, whether or not one graduated.
Eighty-one percent of African Americans said yes, a difference Pew said was not statistically significant compared to 76 percent of whites. The difference was consistent, however, across various mediums (e-books, recorded books, print).
These findings went viral, in the form of the generalization "the most likely person to read a book — in any format — is a black woman who's been to college." (See also, for example, Sophie McManus, "Diving into the Sexist, er, sexy beach read," Washington Post, 8/6/2016.) In its support, I would note that Essence magazine, aimed at black women, prints a list of best-selling books in black America and reviews books regularly. Few magazines aimed at young white women review books.
Racial and sexual generalizations like these — even my own — set my teeth on edge. There are always social causes for these social phenomena. They do not prove anything about racial "essence." But at least this new one about black women is positive.
Let me also undo the generalization I penned earlier about Mississippi State. Five years ago, its sociology department hosted me for two days as their "Alpha Kappa Delta speaker." The intellectual subculture, which in 1963 consisted of fewer than two dozen students among 12,000, has grown immensely at MSU. It is far from dominant on campus — the "collegiate" and vocational subcultures are dominant — but neither is it dormant. Not every college needs to be alike, after all.
This twelve-page (!) program was for Coates’s DC book launch.
I wrote most of the foregoing more than a year ago but somehow never posted it to HNN. Last week, an event in Washington, D.C., pushed me to do so. The Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in D.C. hosted the "book launch" of Ta-Nehisi Coates's new book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. By 5PM, when the doors were supposed to open, the line stretched from the churchyard gate to the corner and down the next block to that corner. There were three levels of admission to this paid event: Tier 1, Tier II, and "regular." Luckily I was the guest of a Tier I sponsor, Rodney Hurst, himself an author as well as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement in Jacksonville, FL. The large church rapidly filled to capacity; a leader exhorted us to squeeze together to accommodate more people still in line.
Hundreds of people bought books. Some came pre-signed via stickers on the inside front covers. I had never seen anything like it. Admittedly, I had never stayed up to 12:01AM for the bookstore release of the latest Harry Potter novel, but still, I have been to many book launches. To be sure, the crowd was "only" about 85 percent black, To be sure, it had become an "in" event, although Coates is no media star and does not entertain so much as educate. Talk show host Kojo Nnamdi merely conversed with him, followed by audience questions.
As an important black intellectual, Coates is hardly solitary. Among his peers are Michael Erik Dyson and Cornel West. The next generation back might feature Alice Walker and Henry Louis Gates, and before them, Ralph Ellison and Maya Angelou, in a line that stretches back to W. E. B. DuBois and Frederick Douglass. American culture would be impoverished without these authors — and so many more. There has also been a long line of authors who wrote primarily for working-class African Americans — people like Langston Hughes and his "Simple Tales," Carter G. Woodson and ASALH, and Pullman porter J. A. Rogers, selling his books across the country as he rode the rails.
The baseless claim that African Americans are anti-intellectual hurts race relations, as does the assertion that "they" are stupider than "us." That's why I write, hoping that publicity about Coates's massive turnout — for a book talk! — can help put to rest both canards at once.
What the paucity of African Americans in Vertigo showed was mostly residential segregation. After Vertigo moved to College Park, in majority-black Prince Georges County, MD, its customer base became blacker, even though its immediate neighborhood was still white.
Pew relied on self-reported data. Reading a book is the socially approved response, so it is possible that some people said "yes" who had never opened one. It's not clear why this possibility would mess up comparisons across groups, although it might. A moment's thought will surely convince you, however, that exaggerated reading due to false reporting would probably be larger among white, female, more educated, and richer respondents, who might be predicted to "feel" the social pressure more.
Copyright James W. Loewen
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