Category Archives: African American Books

Here you will find book reviews and commentary on books by African Americans

Americans don’t read as much as they used to

In 1982, nearly six in 10 American adults — 57 percent — reported having read at least one work of literature, like a novel, short story, play, or poetry collection, in the last 12 months. But as of 2015, only 43 percent can say the same:

(The Washington Post)

That decline marks a 30-year low in Americans’ reading habits, according to new data from the National Endowment for the Arts. For comparison, in 2015, 66 percent of respondents went to a movie or attended a live performance.

Among adults who do read, demographics make a difference. Women are more likely to read literature than men; white people are more likely to read than black or Hispanic Americans; and higher levels of education correspond to higher literature consumption rates. Bonnie Kristian



The Secret to Getting Bestselling Books for Free

Bestselling eBooks are being given away for free every single day. Acclaimed novels from the most talented authors in the world can be at your fingertips for little to no cost.

How is this possible? It’s because publishers and authors are giving eBooks away on purpose. Here are the main reasons why they do it:

Hook You on a Series – Just like movie makers, authors and publishers recognize the power of a compelling series, such as The Hunger Games. Publishers and authors know that giving away the first book can get you hooked so that you buy the subsequent books. This is good for everyone. Book lovers get great books for free, and publishers and authors reap the rewards in future book sales.

Prime the Pump for a New Release – As part of the promotional plan for a new release, publishers will often re-release an old book by the same author at a large discount to drum up publicity and new readers. For example, in anticipation of Dan Brown’s Inferno, Doubleday Publishing released his wildly successful novel, The Da Vinci Code, for free. A whole new audience was introduced to Dan Brown, andInferno became a bestseller.

Build a Following for a New Author – Many independent authors give away their masterpieces for free to build up a following. It’s difficult to break through in the competitive publishing world, and giving away a book for free can put an author on the map. For this reason, you can often find diamonds in the rough at a low cost (if you know the right places to look).

Now that you know the free eBook secret, how do you go about finding them? There are many websites claiming to have free eBooks. But it’s often difficult to cut through the clutter and find the high quality books perfect for you.

That’s where our favorite service, BookBub, comes into play. They do the work so you don’t have to. They handpick eBook deals across a wide range of devices – Kindle, Nook, iPad, Google Play, Kobo and others – to ensure the highest quality. In fact, they reject over 50 percent of the submissions they get. And BookBub only sends eBooks in the genres you select – ranging from thrillers to romance to cookbooks – so there’s no unwanted clutter in your inbox.

If you want to discover great eBooks for free, learn more about BookBub here and see for yourself!



Summer Doldrums? These Nautical Reads Will Put Wind In Your Sails

Who needs destinations? This summer, we’re focusing on the journey. All these books — some old, some new — will transport you: by train, planecarbikeboatfootcity transit,horseballoonrocket shiptime machine and even the odd giant peach. Bon voyage! (Taxes and fees not included.)

Treasure Island

Treasure Island

by Robert Louis Stevenson

Paperback, 302 pages

I take up my digital device in this year of grace, and go back to the time when a fictional schooner, the Hispaniola, set sail in search of buried treasure. While the journey that narrator Jim Hawkins makes with Long John Silver, Dr. Livesey and the rest of the crew is relatively uneventful, what happens once they reach their destination is anything but. Batten down the hatches and whisk yourself away from a foggy corner of England to a solitary, windswept island guarding a secret or two. Thirty-four short chapters — Treasure Island was originally published in serial installments — make for a quick read in which you’ll become well acquainted with fo’c’sle hands, cutlasses, a talking parrot named Cap’n Flint and many (oh, so many) bottles of rum. By the end, even the most dedicated landlubber will smell the sea. (If you want to be truly transported, find a copy with illustrations by N.C. Wyeth.)

— Mary Glendinning, NPR Library staff

Ship of Fools

Ship Of Fools

by Katherine Anne Porter

Paperback, 497 pages

You could say that Katherine Anne Porter’s novel is part of the same literary tradition as Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: A group of travelers, strangers to each other, embark on a journey and gradually learn each other’s stories. In this case, there are miles of ocean in which to uncover the vanities, prejudices, delusions, illusions and (very occasionally) nobility of the fellow travelers. Porter sets her novel in the years leading up to World War II — specifically August 1931 — on a ship sailing from Mexico to Germany. The anxious passengers all believe they’re “bound for a place for some reason more desirable than the place they were leaving.” The title says it all: a ship of fools. Ethnicities (Mexicans, Germans, a German Jew, Spaniards, Americans) rub against one another, as do classes (what Porter calls the “white linen class,” a Spanish dancing troupe, American honeymooners). Ultimately, when they reach their destinations, they have little awareness of the violence and devastation they’ll meet with in the years ahead. But we do.

 Deborah George, senior editor, Arts Desk



A Chronicle Of The Amistad Rebels

by Kevin Young

Paperback, 249 pages

Many of poetry’s journeys are historical and allegorical: This is one. In it, Kevin Young retells the story of a group of African captives who, in 1839, overtook the slave ship on which they were being transported, only to end up recaptured, brought to New Haven, Conn., and set at the center of the growing abolition debate. It’s heavy stuff for a beach read, but if you’re taking a book of poems on vacation, presumably, heavy is what you’re after. Though this book takes place in the past, and inhabits myriad voices, its central themes are about the America we have made and live in now: “They learn me a tongue / but no cheek to keep it in.” Young’s lines engage a conversation that must be ongoing.

— Craig Morgan Teicher, book critic

The Survival of the Bark Canoe

The Survival Of The Bark Canoe

by John McPhee

Paperback, 114 pages

For centuries, before wood-and-canvas, fiberglass or plastic boats, paddlers plied our Northern waters in birch-bark canoes crafted by Native Americans. Here, John McPhee profiles Henri Vaillancourt of Greenville, N.H., who as a teen embarked on his life mission to make canoes like the Indians used to — using the same few tools, materials and methodology. Wielding an ax and crooked knife with seemingly casual authority, Vaillancourt fells, splits, carves and shapes the cedar, hardwood and birch bark he scouts in Northern forests. He “sews and lashes” his vessels together with “the split roots of white pine,” using “no nails, screws or rivets.” McPhee, with similar economy and expertise, captures the monomaniacal, moody craftsman and the arduous 150-mile trip they took with some friends through the north Maine woods in two of Vaillancourt’s canoes. Following in Thoreau’s wake, they battle nasty head winds, insatiable insects, muddy portages and Henri’s questionable leadership. This trim book, packed with enough history, technical information, adventure, wit and unappetizing freeze-dried Shrimp Creole and Turkey Tetrazzini to sink a less adept writer, glides with the elegance and durability of one of Vaillancourt’s perfectly proportioned boats.

— Heller McAlpin, book critic

Grandfather's Journey

Grandfather’s Journey

by Allen Say

Paperback, 32 pages

In a touching autobiography, Allen Say takes a clear-eyed look at his grandfather’s journey to America. Say’s grandfather is a young man when he leaves Japan and sails across the Pacific Ocean, later exploring the country by train, riverboat and on foot. Eventually, he returns home to Japan to marry and start his family. Later, as an old man, he longs to return to the United States, and his favorite place — California. But he never does. Say follows in his grandfather’s footsteps and eventually settles in America until he himself is a father. Evocative paintings of muted hues perfectly complement the elegant, spare text that says so much without being oversentimental. No matter what your family history, this Caldecott-winning tale offers a universality all can relate to. (For ages 4 to 8)

— Lisa Yee, author, most recently of Warp Speed

The Man Who Ate His Boots

The Man Who Ate His Boots

The Tragic History Of The Search For The Northwest Passage

by Anthony Brandt

Paperback, 441 pages

To counteract summertime heat and humidity, try Anthony Brandt’s The Man Who Ate His Boots, a bracingly told history of British explorers’ harrowing quest for the Northwest Passage between 1810 and 1860. They imagined a new route that would shave 3,000 miles off the voyage to Asia, but no one knew that the polar sea was frozen year-round. Explorers faced a chain of ordeals: Brandt captures sea journeys stopped by ice, overland sledge expeditions bedeviled by blizzards, and brief, miserable, mosquito-ridden summer interludes. Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated South Pole campaign is often called the “worst journey in the world.” But try the 1845 Franklin expedition — a crew of 120, food for three years, packed onto two vessels, soon icebound. After two years aboard ship, survivors tried to walk to civilization. “Their deaths were ugly, a scene of horror out of a Gothic novel,” Brandt writes. “There was no trace of dignity in the record left by their bones, which had been broken open by the last survivors for their marrow.” Something to consider the next time you feel a vacation isn’t going well.

— Jane Ciabattaribook critic

Frenchman's Creek

Frenchman’s Creek

by Daphne du Maurier

Paperback, 283 pages

Brace yourself — I’m about to recommend the most romantic book you will ever read. Really, make sure there’s ice in the glass before you crack this one. Daphne du Maurier’s novel contains all the best signifiers of danger and romance — a Frenchman, a headstrong English lady, a choice between love and duty, and above all, a pirate ship. Set along the coast of Cornwall in the reign of Charles II, it concerns the affair of the married Dona St. Columb and Jean-Benoit Aubery, the pirate who’s been squatting in her Cornwall estate. What’s he been doing there, besides using it as a base for his nefarious burglaries? Reading poetry in her bed. As one does. What follows is a rip-roaring adventure, complete with the Lady St. Columb riding the ship in men’s breeches as the pirate goes about his business. And of course — the romance. Here’s a tip: When a shy, literary pirate asks you for your earring — that’s not all he wants you to take off. The writing is lush, and if you’re not in the mood, or the weather isn’t hot enough, you might find it ridiculous. But come back to it when your attitude has shaped up. I guarantee you at least one delightful moment where you will crush the book to your chest, sigh deeply, and cast a slightly disappointed eye toward any seatmate, companion or spouse who is not a French pirate.

— Barrie Hardymon, editor, Weekend Edition

Elric of Melnibone

Elric Of Melnibone

by Michael Moorcock


In the long litany of sword-wielding mass murderers that populate the pages of a thousand lesser fantasy novels, Elric of Melniboné is far and away the coolest, grimmest, moodiest, most elegant, degenerate, drug-addicted, cursed, twisted and emotionally weird mass murderer of them all. Elric, though, is nothing without the trappings of the fading and debauched land from which he fled. There are magical swords and Old Gods, evil sorcerers and heroic companions, sure. But the most awesome moment comes when the Melnibonean navy takes to the seas (accompanied, of course, by flights of dragons) in its pyramid-shaped golden battle barges, destroying the fleet of reavers Elric has brought home to punish the corrupt land that spawned him. Why? Because he’s a moody little brat sometimes. But when your albino proto-emo hero’s hissy fits are accompanied by giant magical boats smashing everything around them to pieces with their awesomeness, I just don’t care.

— Jason Sheehan, author, most recently of Tales from the Radiation Age

Sea of Poppies

Sea Of Poppies

by Amitav Ghosh

Hardcover, 515 pages

The tall-masted old slave schooner repurposed to transport opium and indentured servants from India to British sugar plantations in Mauritius is practically a character in its own right in Ghosh’s historical novel. This is no pleasure cruise. The Ibis is at once prison, shelter for the destitute and caldron of ignominy and strife. The ship negotiates the waters of the Bay of Bengal in 1838 on the eve of the Opium Wars with its volatile, mixed load of passengers, including an American octoroon sailor, a young Indian widow fleeing her rapist brother-in-law, an opium addict and a plucky French orphan. The destinies of Ghosh’s extraordinary range of compelling characters — and of the Ibis — are as uncertain as that of poppy seeds blowing in the wind. His epic is a marvel of research, adventure and, ultimately, humanity — the kind of read that sends you sailing into new horizons.

— Heller McAlpin, book critic

Wild Seed

Wild Seed

by Octavia E. Butler

Paperback, 279 pages

If you don’t yet know iconic science-fiction author Octavia Butler, it’s always a good time to get started. Wild Seed is the fourth book published in her vast Patternist series, but it’s the earliest in the chronology, making it a perfect entry to this saga of immortality, gender, culture and politics. Ageless healer and shape-shifter Anyanwu is caught in a codependent relationship with the powerful Doro that sometimes offers kinship but more often trades in coercion — perhaps most crucially when he demands she leave her home with him. Their sea journey proves revelatory in ways interpersonal and geographical, as their time on the ship is both political limbo and romantic time bomb — and that’s before Anyanwu shape-shifts into a dolphin. Her travels will continue, and each one is a reaction and a counterpoint to the stasis of immortality. In Wild Seed, travel is a ritual of identity as much as a physical crossing.

— Genevieve Valentine, author, most recently of The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

A Girl Named Disaster

A Girl Named Disaster

by Nancy Farmer

Paperback, 309 pages

Eleven-year-old Nhamo Jongwe has a hard life. With her mother long dead and her father long gone, she lives under the thumb of her resentful Aunt Chipo, doing chores from dawn till dusk. The only person who loves Nhamo is her grandmother, who delights in passing on the stories and myths of their Shona tribe. When their village is struck by cholera and a witch doctor demands that Nhamo become the third wife of a cruel alcoholic, she steals a boat and runs away. Hoping to reach her father’s family in Zimbabwe, the inexperienced Nhamo is instead stranded in the middle of Lake Cabora Bassa. The resulting story of her struggle to survive is beautiful and gripping, rich with myth and lyrical language. Reminiscent of classics like Island of the Blue Dolphins andJulie of the Wolves, Farmer’s careful research makes Nhamo’s story authentic and informative, while her gorgeous writing makes it unforgettable. (For ages 8 to 12)

— Margaret H. Willison, book critic

Honorable Mentions: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand, The Lifeboat: A Novel, by Charlotte Rogan, A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar, The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea, by Sebastian Junger, The Odyssey, by Homer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain



Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer

“Deep reading” is vigorous exercise from the brain and increases our real-life capacity for empathy


Gregory Currie, a professor of philosophy at the University of Nottingham, recently argued in the New York Times that we ought not to claim that literature improves us as people, because there is no “compelling evidence that suggests that people are morally or socially better for reading Tolstoy” or other great books.

Actually, there is such evidence. Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, and Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, reported in studies published in 2006 and 2009 that individuals who often read fiction appear to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective. This link persisted even after the researchers factored in the possibility that more empathetic individuals might choose to read more novels. A 2010 study by Mar found a similar result in young children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their “theory of mind,” or mental model of other people’s intentions.

“Deep reading” — as opposed to the often superficial reading we do on the Web — is an endangered practice, one we ought to take steps to preserve as we would a historic building or a significant work of art. Its disappearance would imperil the intellectual and emotional development of generations growing up online, as well as the perpetuation of a critical part of our culture: the novels, poems and other kinds of literature that can be appreciated only by readers whose brains, quite literally, have been trained to apprehend them.

Recent research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience has demonstrated that deep reading — slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity — is a distinctive experience, different in kind from the mere decoding of words. Although deep reading does not, strictly speaking, require a conventional book, the built-in limits of the printed page are uniquely conducive to the deep reading experience. A book’s lack of hyperlinks, for example, frees the reader from making decisions — Should I click on this link or not? — allowing her to remain fully immersed in the narrative.

That immersion is supported by the way the brain handles language rich in detail, allusion and metaphor: by creating a mental representation that draws on the same brain regions that would be active if the scene were unfolding in real life. The emotional situations and moral dilemmas that are the stuff of literature are also vigorous exercise for the brain, propelling us inside the heads of fictional characters and even, studies suggest, increasing our real-life capacity for empathy.

None of this is likely to happen when we’re scrolling through TMZ. Although we call the activity by the same name, the deep reading of books and the information-driven reading we do on the Web are very different, both in the experience they produce and in the capacities they develop. A growing body of evidence suggests that online reading may be less engaging and less satisfying, even for the “digital natives” for whom it is so familiar. Last month, for example, Britain’s National Literacy Trust released the results of a study of 34,910 young people aged 8 to 16. Researchers reported that 39% of children and teens read daily using electronic devices, but only 28% read printed materials every day. Those who read only onscreen were three times less likely to say they enjoy reading very much and a third less likely to have a favorite book. The study also found that young people who read daily only onscreen were nearly two times less likely to be above-average readers than those who read daily in print or both in print and onscreen.

To understand why we should be concerned about how young people read, and not just whether they’re reading at all, it helps to know something about the way the ability to read evolved. “Human beings were never born to read,” notes Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University and author ofProust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Unlike the ability to understand and produce spoken language, which under normal circumstances will unfold according to a program dictated by our genes, the ability to read must be painstakingly acquired by each individual. The “reading circuits” we construct are recruited from structures in the brain that evolved for other purposes — and these circuits can be feeble or they can be robust, depending on how often and how vigorously we use them.

The deep reader, protected from distractions and attuned to the nuances of language, enters a state that psychologist Victor Nell, in a study of the psychology of pleasure reading, likens to a hypnotic trance. Nell found that when readers are enjoying the experience the most, the pace of their reading actually slows. The combination of fast, fluent decoding of words and slow, unhurried progress on the page gives deep readers time to enrich their reading with reflection, analysis, and their own memories and opinions. It gives them time to establish an intimate relationship with the author, the two of them engaged in an extended and ardent conversation like people falling in love.

This is not reading as many young people are coming to know it. Their reading is pragmatic and instrumental: the difference between what literary critic Frank Kermode calls “carnal reading” and “spiritual reading.” If we allow our offspring to believe carnal reading is all there is — if we don’t open the door to spiritual reading, through an early insistence on discipline and practice — we will have cheated them of an enjoyable, even ecstatic experience they would not otherwise encounter. And we will have deprived them of an elevating and enlightening experience that will enlarge them as people. Observing young people’s attachment to digital devices, some progressive educators and permissive parents talk about needing to “meet kids where they are,” molding instruction around their onscreen habits. This is mistaken. We need, rather, to show them someplace they’ve never been, a place only deep reading can take them.


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Amiri Baraka Dead: Controversial Author And Activist Dies At 79

Portrait of American writer Amiri Baraka, USA, 17th March 2013. (Photo by Mick Gold/Redferns)Portrait of American writer Amiri Baraka, USA, 17th March 2013. (Photo by Mick Gold/Redferns)



NEW YORK (AP) — Amiri Baraka, the militant man of letters and tireless agitator whose blues-based, fist-shaking poems, plays and criticism made him a provocative and groundbreaking force in American culture, has died. He was 79.

His booking agent, Celeste Bateman, told The Associated Press that Baraka, who had been hospitalized since last month, died Thursday at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.

Perhaps no writer of the 1960s and ’70s was more radical or polarizing than the former LeRoi Jones, and no one did more to extend the political debates of the civil rights era to the world of the arts. He inspired at least one generation of poets, playwrights and musicians, and his immersion in spoken word traditions and raw street language anticipated rap, hip-hop and slam poetry. The FBI feared him to the point of flattery, identifying Baraka as “the person who will probably emerge as the leader of the Pan-African movement in the United States.”

Baraka transformed from the rare black to join the Beat caravan of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac to leader of the Black Arts Movement, an ally of the Black Power movement that rejected the liberal optimism of the early ’60s and intensified a divide over how and whether the black artist should take on social issues. Scorning art for art’s sake and the pursuit of black-white unity, Baraka was part of a philosophy that called for the teaching of black art and history and producing works that bluntly called for revolution.

“We want ‘poems that kill,’” Baraka wrote in his landmark “Black Art,” a manifesto published in 1965, the year he helped found the Black Arts Movement. “Assassin poems. Poems that shoot guns/Poems that wrestle cops into alleys/and take their weapons leaving them dead/with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland.”

He was as eclectic as he was prolific: His influences ranged from Ray Bradbury and Mao Zedong to Ginsberg and John Coltrane. Baraka wrote poems, short stories, novels, essays, plays, musical and cultural criticism and jazz operas. His 1963 book, “Blues People,” has been called the first major history of black music to be written by an African-American. A line from his poem “Black People!” — “Up against the wall mother f—–” — became a counterculture slogan for everyone from student protesters to the rock band Jefferson Airplane. A 2002 poem he wrote alleging that some Israelis had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks led to widespread outrage.

Decades earlier, Baraka had declared himself a black nationalist out to “break the deathly grip of the White Eyes,” then a Marxist-Leninist out to destroy imperialists of all colors. No matter his name or ideology, he was committed to “struggle, change, struggle, unity, change, movement.”

“All of the oaths I swore were sincere reflections of what I felt — what I thought I knew and understood,” he wrote in a 1990 essay. “But those beliefs change, and the work shows this, too.”

He was denounced by critics as buffoonish, homophobic, anti-Semitic, a demagogue. He was called by others a genius, a prophet, the Malcolm X of literature. Eldridge Cleaver hailed him as the bard of the “funky facts.” Ishmael Reed credited the Black Arts Movement for encouraging artists of all backgrounds and enabling the rise of multiculturalism. The scholar Arnold Rampersad placed him alongside Frederick Douglass and Richard Wright in the pantheon of black cultural influences.

“From Amiri Baraka, I learned that all art is political, although I don’t write political plays,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist August Wilson once said.

First published in the 1950s, Baraka crashed the literary party in 1964, at the Cherry Lane Theater in Greenwich Village, when “Dutchman” opened and made instant history at the height of the civil rights movement. Baraka’s play was a one-act showdown between a middle class black man, Clay, and a sexually daring white woman, Lula, ending in a brawl of murderous taunts and confessions.

“Charlie Parker. All the hip white boys scream for Bird,” Clay says. “And they sit there talking about the tortured genius of Charlie Parker. Bird would’ve not played a note of music if he just walked up to East 67th Street and killed the first 10 white people he saw. Not a note!”

Less than a year after the March on Washington, Baraka pronounced the dream dead, a delusion. The war of words commenced. The Village Voice gave it an Obie award for the top off-Broadway show. Norman Mailer called it the “best play in America.” Jean-Luc Godard lifted some dialogue for his film “Masculin Feminine.” New York Times critic Howard Taubman was impressed, and, apparently, terrified.

“If this is the way the Negroes really feel about the white world around them, there’s more rancor buried in the breasts of colored conformists than anyone can imagine,” Taubman wrote in his review.

When Philip Roth, writing for The New York Review of Books, criticized the character development in “Dutchman,” the playwright answered: “Sir, it is not my fault that you are so feeble-minded you refuse to see any Negro as a man, but rather as the narrow product of your own sterile response.”

Baraka was still LeRoi Jones when he wrote “Dutchman.” But the Cuban revolution, the assassination in 1965 of Malcolm X and the Newark riots of 1967, when the poet was jailed and photographed looking dazed and bloodied, radicalized him. Jones left his white wife (Hettie Cohen), cut off his white friends and moved from Greenwich Village to Harlem. He renamed himself Imamu Ameer Baraka, “spiritual leader blessed prince,” and dismissed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a “brainwashed Negro.” He helped organize the 1972 National Black Political Convention and founded the Congress of African People. He also founded community groups in Harlem and Newark, the hometown to which he eventually returned.

The revolution, Baraka believed, would be set to music. In “Blues People,” he traced the role of blues and jazz as forces of nonconformity in American culture from slavery days to the present. In essays and interviews, he supported such jazz artists as Sun Ra, Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp, chastised Sly and the Family Stone for including whites in the band and scorned the Beatles as “a group of middle-class white boys who need a haircut and male hormones.” He welcomed rap as “mass-based poetry,” but worried that corporate power was turning performers away from the mission of “struggle and democracy and political consciousness.”

The Black Arts Movement was essentially over by the mid-1970s, and Baraka distanced himself from some of his harsher comments — about Dr. King, about gays and about whites in general. But he kept making news. In the early 1990s, as Spike Lee was filming a biography of Malcolm X, Baraka ridiculed the director as “a petit bourgeois Negro” unworthy of his subject. In 2002, respected enough to be named New Jersey’s poet laureate, he shocked again with “Somebody Blew Up America,” a Sept. 11 poem with a jarring twist.

“Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed,” read a line from the poem. “Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to stay home that day?”

Then-Gov. James E. McGreevey and others demanded his resignation. Baraka refused, denying that “Somebody Blew Up” was anti-Semitic (the poem also attacks Hitler and the Holocaust) and condemning the “dishonest, consciously distorted and insulting non-interpretation of my poem.” Discovering he couldn’t be fired, the state eliminated the position altogether, in 2003.

Baraka was born Everett LeRoy Jones in 1934, a postal worker’s son who grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood in Newark and remembered his family’s passion for songs and storytelling. He showed early talents for sports and music and did well enough in high school to graduate with honors and receive a scholarship from Rutgers University.

Feeling out of place at Rutgers, he transferred to a leading black college, Howard University. He hated it there (“Howard University shocked me into realizing how desperately sick the Negro could be,” he later wrote) and joined the Air Force, from which he was discharged for having too many books, among other transgressions. By 1958, he had settled in Greenwich Village, met Ginsberg and other Beats, married fellow writer Cohen and was editing an avant-garde journal, Yugen. He called himself LeRoi Jones.

He was never meant to write like other writers. In his “Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka,” published in 1984, he remembered himself as a young man, sitting on a bench, reading “one of the carefully put together exercises The New Yorker publishes constantly as high poetic art.”

And he was in tears.

“I realized that there was something in me so out, so unconnected with what this writer was and what this magazine was that what was in me that wanted to come out as poetry would never come out like that and be my poetry,” he wrote.

Baraka’s many works included the poetry collections “Black Magic” and “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note,” the plays “Slave Ship” and “Arm Yourself or Harm Yourself,” and a novel, “The System of Dante’s Hell.” Admittedly a hard man to work with, he wrote for numerous publishers and published some books himself.

“He opened tightly guarded doors for not only Blacks but poor whites as well and, of course, Native Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans,” the American Indian author Maurice Kenny wrote of him. “We’d all still be waiting for the invitation from The New Yorker without him. He taught us all how to claim it and take it.”

Baraka divorced Cohen in 1965 and a year later married Sylvia Robinson, whose name became Bibi Amina Baraka. He had seven children, two with his first wife and five with his second. A son, Ras Baraka, became a councilman in Newark and is running for mayor of that city. A daughter, Shani Baraka, was murdered in 2003 by the estranged husband of her sister, Wanda Pasha.

Amiri Baraka taught at Yale University and George Washington University and spent 20 years on the faculty of the State University of New York in Stonybrook. He received numerous grants and prizes, including a Guggenheim fellowship and a poetry award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Baraka was the subject of a 1983 documentary, “In Motion,” and holds a minor place in Hollywood history. In “Bulworth,” Warren Beatty’s 1998 satire about a senator’s break from the political establishment, Baraka plays a homeless poet who cheers on the title character.

“You got to be a spirit,” the poet tells him. “You got to sing — don’t be no ghost.”


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Technology and Falling Literacy Rates Are Writing an End to Black-Owned Bookstores


Black Issues Book Review

The closing of Black Issues Book Review
has contributed to the demise of black-
owned book stores.

by Frederick H. Lowe
The number of African-American-owned bookstores has dropped significantly since the late 1970s and 1980s due to a variety of factors, including corporate control of the Internet, waning literacy and fiscal mismanagement.

In the 1970s and 1980s, more than 1,000 black-owned bookstores were in business in the United States. Now only slightly more than 100, possibly 116 to 117, if that many, remain open, according to Troy Johnson, founder of the African American Literature Book Club (, which is based in New York.

“I would hope that I am wrong,” Johnson told The NorthStar News & Analysis. Johnson added that many of the black-owned bookstores may be not be true book stores, but are gift shops that also sell books. Others may be white-owned bookstores that have a large inventory of books that target African-American readers.

Founded in 1960, Marcus Books is the nation’s oldest, independent, black bookstore, but the San Francisco store was on the verge of being closed by the owners of the building where it is housed.

Earlier this month, Marcus’ owners reached an agreement to purchase the building for $2.6 million. Marcus’ owners, Karen and Greg Johnson, have until the end of February to raise the funds and close the deal, according to local news reports. The current owner purchased the building in a bankruptcy sale. Marcus Books operates a second store in Oakland, Calif.

In 2012, Johnson  posted on his blog, titled “The Death of the Black-owned Independent Bookstore,” that 141-black-owned bookstores across the  nation had closed since the late 1990s.

Johnson operates the website, HURIA Search. HURIA, which means freedom in Swahili, lists the nation’s black-owned bookstores. In Sept. 23, 2013,  Johnson wrote in an e-mail message that corporate control of the web, the economy and waning literacy are killing black-owned bookstores.

Corporate control of the web includes, which can use the web against independent black-owned bookstores by beating them on book variety, volume and price.

“The challenges are greater than any time I’ve seen in almost 20 years I’ve been doing business on the web,” Johnson wrote.  He noted that the number of Google inquiries for African-American books and African-American authors has declined from 2004 to 2013.

Google also noted that interest in African-American literature has declined and that younger people tend to read much less than the older generation.

The failure of Black Issues Book Review, which went out of business in 2007, also contributed to the decline in black-owned bookstores.

Angela P. Dodson, executive editor of Black Issues Book Review from 2003 to 2007, said because the publication no longer exists, black readers don’t know to go into a bookstore and ask for books written by black authors.

“The books are not getting any publicity,” Dodson said.

Johnson noted that books by E. Lynn Harris, author of “Invisible Life” and Terry McMillan, author of  “Waiting to Exhale,” boosted the growth of black-owned, independent bookstores. “The books fueled the industry and there was a greater demand for black books,” Johnson said.

This is a list of black book stores and some black books.

Some of the stores have a physical location and others do not.  The list includes 50 black-owned, independent bookstores.

Here is a list of the hottest books by black authors including, “The Good Lord Bird,” by James McBride, which won the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction.

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Posted by on December 27, 2013 in African American Books



Prison Memoir of a Black Man in the 1850s

Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Inside cover and first page of Austin Reed’s manuscript.



Years ago, a rare-books dealer browsing at an estate sale in Rochester came across an unusual manuscript, dated 1858. The family selling it said little about where it had been for the last 150 years. It appeared never to have left upstate New York.

Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

An 1831 drawing of Auburn State Prison in New York.

Scholars now believe that the mystery manuscript is the first recovered memoir written in prison by an African-American, a discovery that Yale University says it made after authenticating the document andacquiring it for its Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

The 304-page memoir, titled “The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict, or the Inmate of a Gloomy Prison,” describes the experiences of the author, Austin Reed, from the 1830s to the 1850s in a prison in upstate New York.

Caleb Smith, a professor of English at Yale who has written extensively about imprisonment, said he believed the manuscript to be authentic. Reed’s account was corroborated through newspaper articles, court records and prison files, with help from Christine McKay, an archivist and researcher who also works for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Manhattan.

“It’s still a very unusual thing for us to find any previously unknown document from this period by an African-American writer,” Mr. Smith said. “From a literary point of view, I think there’s no other voice in American literature like the voice of this penitentiary narrative, which has a very lyrical quality. And from a historical perspective, what makes this so fascinating at this moment is the deep connection between the history of slavery and the history of incarceration.”

Nancy Kuhl, a curator at the Beineke library, said the manuscript “significantly enriches the canon of 19th-century African-American literature and deepens our understanding of all 19th-century America.”

Reed is believed to have been born a free man near Rochester. As a young man, according to Yale’s research, he was sent to the New York House of Refuge, a juvenile reform school in Manhattan, where he learned to read and write. By the 1830s, a string of thefts resulted in his incarceration in a state prison in Auburn, now known as the Auburn Correctional Facility, which was built in 1816.

The manuscript, written with the dramatic flair of a natural storyteller but in unpolished English, with grammatical and spelling errors, traces his life from childhood to his years at Auburn. It is written under the name Rob Reed, although it is unclear why he used that name, according to Yale.

In the early pages, Reed describes a childhood incident when, encouraged by his sister, he disguised himself as a girl and attempted to kill a man to avenge an earlier whipping.

“I cocked the pistol and with an uplifted hand of revenge I let fire and missd my shot,” he wrote. “It was a dark night. I could hardly see my hands before my face. The old man hollowd murder, murder, but before any aid could get to him I drew the knife a cross his shoulders wich left a deep wound for months afterward.”

Later, Reed describes torturous punishments at Auburn that were typical at the time, including frequent whippings and a device known as the shower-bath, a kind of precursor to waterboarding that was occasionally fatal.

“Stripping off my shirt the tyrantical curse bounded my hands fast in front of me and orderd me to stand around,” Reed wrote. “Turning my back towards him he threw Sixty seven lashes on me according to the orders of Esq. Cook. I was then to stand over the dreain while one of the inmates wash my back in a pail of salt brine.”

Eileen McHugh, the executive director of the Cayuga Museum of History and Art, near Auburn, said that Reed would have been writing under arduous conditions. At the time, prison cells were unlit and had no windows. Men at Auburn were forced to work 10 hours a day in total silence. (In 1890, Auburn would become the site of the first execution by electric chair.)

“I don’t know that it would be forbidden,” Ms. McHugh said of a prisoner’s ability to write, “but nothing would have made it easy.”

Reed probably had extremely limited access to reading material — perhaps little more than the Bible — but the manuscript makes mention of “Robinson Crusoe,” the 1719 novel by Daniel Defoe, and a 1788 poem by William Cowper, “The Morning Dream.”

Prisoners were not allowed to speak and were required to move in lock step, so that they were never face to face with one another. They had no leisure time.

“This was, in the beginning, considered progressive, because they thought it was a way of rehabilitating these criminals,” Ms. McHugh said. “In reality, it was completely contrary to human nature.”

There is reason to believe that Reed hoped that the book would eventually find an audience. Its subtitle is “With the Mysteries and Miseries of the New York House of Reffuge and Auburn Prison Unmasked.”

He frequently addresses the reader directly and appears to have shared the manuscript with someone, though that person’s name is illegible in a note inside it.

Mr. Smith, the Yale professor, said he is preparing the manuscript for publication. “We know that this was never printed, but certainly Reed wanted it to be,” he said. “He’s not writing for intimates, he’s not writing for himself. He’s writing it for the public.”

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Posted by on December 12, 2013 in African American Books


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