“The Home of Common Sense & Proper Propaganda”: African American Bookstores as Activist Platforms

The Black Power era was defined just as much by cultural exploration, reinvention, and pride as by radical politics, and it had a great stake in finding conduits for the all-important flow of ideas.  Its diverse ideologies and expressions came together in a form of community organizing that combined the intellectual and pragmatic aspects of the movement, all outside the bubble of the academy: African American bookstores.

These bookstores served as ideological havens, platforms for community organization and service, and gateways to a new political consciousness for black Americans.  They dotted the country, from Washington, D.C. to Oakland, California, and pulled in patrons not just from the heterogeneous Black Power community in America, but from black intellectual and political circles worldwide.  In the political climate of the Black Power era, a bookstore could be much more than an archive for knowledge: it could produce knowledge, and it could give rise to political action.

Bookstore owners understood that awakening the political consciousness of black Americans was a process that engaged both the past and the future to redefine black identity.  They did so by exploring not only contemporary art and politics, but Pan-African history and myth.  All these things were tools in the effort to inspire and mobilize a new wave of black activists, artists, and politicians.  Booksellers also worked to counter the white-dominated narratives of public life and memory in America, challenging accepted ideas of where education should come from, who can serve a community’s needs and be memorialized for it, and who has access to public and intellectual spaces.

“If you can’t find it, it’s because Michaux’s got it,” bookseller Lewis Michaux used to say, taking pride in the high sales numbers and varied stock of his National Memorial African Bookstore[1].  Founded in Harlem in 1933, Michaux’s bookstore was a major site of African American intellectual life even before the birth of the Black Power Movement.  It drew its fame partly from the prominent artists and politicians who frequented its stacks, partly from its role as a site for rallies and speeches, and partly from the outsize personality of its owner.  Called “The Professor,” Lewis Michaux was an outspoken activist, organizer, and educator.  He advised Malcolm X and forged connections with African leaders, despite having little formal education himself.  He also took unabashedly controversial stances on religion, and put his own spin on Marcus Garvey’s Afro-centric empowerment politics.

A view of the National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem circa 1970.
The National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem, circa 1970 – “Knowledge Is Power And You Need It Every Hour”

The National Memorial African Bookstore was on Harlem’s Seventh Avenue, the “Great Black Way.”  Michaux’s self-imposed role as bookseller, activist, and intellectual guide helped to make it a crossroads of African American and Pan-African intellectual exchange.  Proudly branding his store “The Home of Common Sense and Proper Propaganda,” he aimed to foster empowerment and political awareness among black Americans.  However, this was not in order to return to Africa, but to enact social change in the United States.  “Some young boys came into my bookstore one time and gave me a closed fist salute,” he said in a 1976 interview with the New York Times. “I said ‘what’s that?’ They said, ‘black power.’ I said ‘open your hand. See, you ain’t got nothing in it. Black is beautiful, but knowledge is power”[3].

Redevelopment eventually pushed the bookstore to the fringes of its former neighborhood, and it closed in 1974.  However, by the final years of the Black Power Movement Michaux’s radical legacy had begun to move into the mainstream.  Harlem’s commemorative Lewis Michaux Book Fair received city and state funding: the official endorsement of a figure who had made his reputation from the intellectual and racial fringe.  A younger generation of African American activists had also followed in his footsteps, opening political bookstores at other hotbeds of black activism: Liberation Bookstore in Harlem, Marcus Books in Oakland, Uhuru Bookstore in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Drum and Spear Bookstore and Press in Washington, D.C.

Liberation Bookstore
Founder Una Mulzac outside the Liberation Bookstore in Harlem

Founded in 1968 by former members of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Drum and Spear Bookstore and Press was the next step in bookstore-centric Black Power activism.  The nation’s capital had just endured a tumultuous spring, as the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. stoked racial tensions into open rebellion.  The Drum and Spear’s founders included Ralph Featherstone, Charlie Cobb, Judy Richardson, and Courtland Cox, and they approached their new project with SNCC’s political aims in mind.  The store stocked books on a broad spectrum of Pan-African and African American subjects, from poetry, language, and cooking to radical political theory, and its contents would eventually supply African American studies programs and black preschools around the country.

Like the National Memorial African Bookstore, the Drum and Spear was created as a site for consciousness-raising and community mobilization.  Richardson noted that the drum of the store’s name represented Pan-African exchange, while the spear represented “whatever else might be necessary for the liberation of the people”[2].  Its staff created a network of black-owned businesses and institutions across the city, established a printing press, and used the bookstore space alternately as a debate forum, preschool, clinic, and informal classroom.  Staff members helped their patrons develop a greater political consciousness by engaging them in discussion and making reading suggestions, and longtime patrons went on to do the same for newcomers.  Reaching overseas, the store owners even established an information center in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Flyer published by Drum & Spear Bookstore & Press

Though independent bookstores still function as sites of activism, the most influential black bookstores of the Black Power era rose and fell with the movement.   The majority of political black bookstores were open about the fact that they placed ideological goals above financial ones.  They were commercial sites that often failed to profit, focusing instead on their community impact.   As niche businesses, their memory belongs mostly to members of the black intellectual and activist circles of the time: those people who were directly invested in their ideological mission.  Few of the original stores remain, but they mark out a legacy of formal and informal social justice activism, molded to the times and to the needs of their community.


Related Sites of Memory

The Black Scholar: the first academic journal of its kind

Channeling Pan-Africanism: The Role of Radio in the Black Power Movement


Sources

[1] Emblidge, David. “Rallying Point: Lewis Michaux’s National Memorial African Bookstore.”  Publishing Research Quarterly, vol. 24, issue 4, 2008, pp. 267-276. Via Springer Link.

[2] Beckles, Colin. “Black Bookstores, Black Power, and the FBI: The Case of Drum and Spear.” The Western Journal of Black Studies, vol. 20, no. 2, 1996, pp. 63-71. Via ProQuest.

[3] Fraser, Gerald C. “Lewis H. Michaux: One for the books.”  New York Times, 23 May 1976.

Image Sources

National Memorial African Bookstore, by Jack Garofalo, via  Western Pennsylvania Public Radio, WPSU.org

Liberation Bookstore, by Bruce Stansbury, via The Boston Globe, bostonglobe.com 

Drum & Spear flyer, via African American Intellectual History Society, aaihs.org

Author: Anna Lee

Federal Work Study

2 thoughts on ““The Home of Common Sense & Proper Propaganda”: African American Bookstores as Activist Platforms”

  1. The anecdote you used in paragraph five about a boy using the fist as a sign of black power shows how pervasive the gesture was during the black power movement. It’s interesting how its usage today has evolved and expanded outside of the black community and is now used by feminist groups, politicians, or anyone else trying to show resistance to a larger form of oppression.

  2. Hi, Anna! I have been researching the role of radio in the Black Power Movement and found many interesting parallels between my work and your work on African-American bookstores. I thought it was fascinating how these two different medium- one written word, one spoken word-were both used to support pan-Africanism in hopes of fostering community unity and pride, so that this unified community may stand as one against their oppressors. Both radio and printed word were used to offer a counter narrative to dominant ideologies and were very successful in doing so because of their celebration of shared culture. On the downside, my site, a radio station called WAFR, also closed down because of financial troubles. While they were very invested in having a significant social impact, they were not able to do this sustainably. I wonder if there is a balance that could have been struck so that these sites could have remained open and been financially stable without lessening their social impact.

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