The Community Book Center is celebrating its 30th anniversary this weekend with a series of events that honor and support the institution and the men and women who have kept it a living, crucial part of New Orleans for three decades. As the following essay demonstrates, the Center is as valid as ever, even as New Orleans has changed, in its capacity to inspire and engage young people.
Every day, the back of house staff teased Karen. Most of the kitchen staff at that CBD restaurant were black, but Karen knew little about black America. She had grown up in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s, her family was from the Caribbean, and she moved back and forth between the places before coming to the United States for college. The BOH knew this, but stripped her of her blackness because it was not in line with their vision of what it means to be black. Watching them torment her on a daily basis triggered memories of my own struggles with carving out a racial identity.
It was 1990, and the TV was my babysitter. It flaunted images of all-white casts, with girls swinging fine hair that framed pale skin. My family and I lived in Cobleskill, NY, a minuscule town whose demographics mirrored those found on TV. I tried to emulate the Rapunzel locks by frequently walking through the house with a towel on my head, swinging it over my shoulder whenever I wanted to make a point. I tried to acquire white skin by pouring a gallon of milk on my head. My Ghanaian mother—who hadn’t experienced racial diversity until she was in her 20s, or racism until her 30s; who didn’t suffer from the heavy psychological effects that many of her black American counterparts wore like a yoke; who didn’t understand the benefits of instilling a strong sense of racial pride in her child—briefly explained that I could never be white, and then sent me back into my all-white universe.
By the time I reached college, I had gone through several identity crises, starting in Cobelskill, and becoming exacerbated throughout my intolerant middle school experience and my blatantly racist high school experience. I burned my scalp with chemicals to straighten my hair. I fluctuated between a contrived, stereotypically black American accent and sounding like a Valley girl. I worshipped music-video booties, appreciating images of women who looked like me, yet lamented over my own hips and butt being too big for the jeans that all my white friends were wearing. I was depressed and angry. I thought about race constantly. When my fragile psyche finally cracked, I shaved my head, dropped out of school, moved to Chicago, and enlisted Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and Huey P. Newton to help me pick up the pieces.
Their stories boasted characters who fought to beat a system rooted in oppression and who formed communities tied together by a common, uplifting ideology. The stories exposed women who rose to the forefront of families and activist groups, brandishing their strength to fight an insultingly paternalistic system that emasculated their men and stripped women of the soft femininity reserved for white females. These liberationist women were the glue holding together families and activist groups, and they inspired me to reevaluate my position as a black female and cloak it in self-love and a sense of legitimacy, rather than self-hate and a sense of uncertainty. They became substitute mother figures, new models of womanhood.
When my wanderings brought me to New Orleans in 2011, I found some of these substitute mother figures at the Community Book Center on Bayou Road. I had stumbled in hoping it would serve as a refuge from the judgment I felt while walking through the streets of New Orleans. My fingers grazed the covers of books that ranged from critical theory to literature to coloring books. I wanted to find a place where my speech patterns, my taste in music, my fashion aesthetics, my food consciousness, my booklist, and my friends didn’t automatically classify me as “trying to be white.” After wandering around the book center a few times, too shy to participate in the friendly banter between the Center’s regulars and the woman who handles its day to day operations, Mama Jennifer, I finally sat down and inserted myself into the buzz of activity.
Mama Jennifer remembers my face from past visits, and she greets me with hugs, kisses, and a level of familiarity that I have only experienced with close friends and family. “You don’t come into somebody’s space, give them a little bit of yourself, and then leave,” she says when I mention the Center’s close-knitted atmosphere. “That shows you weren’t sincere in the first place.” While working in a community center specializing in the African diaspora may seem separatist and alienating, Mama Jennifer’s statement, coupled with an emphasis placed on making anyone who sets foot in the Center feel at home, exposes her reverence for basic human connection.
Mama Denise, who has worked at the Center for five years, takes the call for basic human connection further. “I’ve learned what oppression does to bring a sense of ‘group’ among people,” she tells me. “The people that look like my community are brown and black, Asian, and others, because the circumstance pulled us together and we have to figure out how to survive.”
Living on the Center’s shelves are copies of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a story about a white male dealing with the long term effects of sexual abuse. While I initially did not understand its place in the Center, Mama Denise’s statement reveals some context. Oppression is not bound by racial lines, but is an experience that any human can have. Although this is an obvious sentiment, The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s place in the Center shows an unwillingness to participate in the Oppression Olympics and a desire to acknowledge that trauma is legitimate in all its forms. It nods to the concept of allyhood and revitalizes the multiculturalist strategy established during the Civil Rights Movement, prior to the aggressive call for black separatism.
Speaking to the idea of black separatism and a monolithic black community, Mama Denise says, “I think there’s an expectation that, because a person is black, they are automatically seen as part of a large community, and that is wrong because people who are the same color have different orientations. It’s about how to live by diversity. Find what is common among us, and honor our diversity.” Mama Denise is well-versed in diverse black communities. She has traveled extensively, and has spent extended periods of time in Los Angeles, the Midwest, Ghana, and New Orleans. Her black identity has been poked and prodded in every place she has lived.
“The other thing about community is, it’s about respect. You have to allow people to come and go and say, ‘You have a place here. As long as you bring your own honor, your own presence, your own dignity, there’s always here.’” In a sense, her version of community is one that allows its members to name themselves and choose how they want to express their black identity.
“There’s a moment when you decide—you decide—how to be black,” she continues. “You decide on the common values that are important to you. You decide, and you look for those things.” Mama Denise dismantles traditional ideas about black community by urging for the celebration of diversity. She changes the definition of community to mean a safe space where its members are free to define blackness for themselves. “I’m not just a woman of color. Other things inform how I do what I do with my life. Either people are gonna love me or accept me, or that’s not my group. No one can decide what it means to be black but you, because this is your black experience.”
In a place like New Orleans, where there’s a high nativism rate and an overarching, dominant black culture, Mama Denise’s ideas about blackness are radical. However, her progressiveness is what’s necessary to keep the Center alive.
Jennifer and Denise make a distinction between a “book shop”—an arena for consumerism that happens to create little pockets of community—and a “community book center,” a place with a mission to build and maintain a place of belonging. Denise mentions a young couple who has made frequent contributions to the Center’s purpose by helping with events, among other things. In return, the Center hosted an engagement barbecue to honor the couple and thank them for their commitment to the Center. “That’s what communities really do. It takes willingness on somebody else’s part to have things in place when they come in, and then show them that it’s reciprocal. We’re all going to have to give something.” As she prepares for the Center’s 30th Anniversary, Denise stresses that community is not one-sided, but an exchange between all members. “That’s what the anniversary is about. Reciprocity.”