Community Book Center’s Home Fest holds cultural arts panel discussion
A community discussion about the concept of unity and the importance of cultural arts traditions and institutions was led by Vera Warren-Williams, the owner and operator of the Community Book Center.
The Community Book Center hosted its 5th annual Home Fest from June 29 to July 2 this year. Home Fest is a four-day event meant to bring community closer, and it features panel discussions, book signings, art and more. The cultural arts panel took place on Saturday, July 1.
Williams wanted to frame Saturday’s discussion around the ways in which stores like Community Book Center can be saved. The discussion hit on several ways to achieve unity within the black community.
Black-owned book stores are few and far between. Bookstores alone are struggling to stay open. Independent, black-owned stores are struggling even more. These businesses serve as more than bookstores, according to Williams.
“We’re a community resource. We’re a place where folks can gather and have meetings and have discussions and feed the people in the community, literally and figuratively,” Williams said.
One of the ways the community could achieve unity, according to Normand Smith, is through control of imagery and representation. For instance, there is an explicit lack of representation of black history in Orleans Parish school textbooks. Smith said it was not by accident.
“I interviewed dozens and dozens of schoolteachers, and I learned that in Orleans Parish, teachers were forbidden from using black materials to teach,” Smith said.“We are missing, from elementary school up.”
Teachers were still able to impart some of their knowledge about black history on their students outside of the textbooks.
“After I left Joseph A. Craig [High School], I learned that at the Craig school we learned more about our black ancestors and the people whose shoulders we were standing on, but they were never in the book,” Smith said.
Ph.D. Lisa Celeste-Derry, much like Smith, also gained knowledge about black history outside of the context of the school textbooks. This information, she said, was very beneficial for her in education and in life.
“The information–the history that we received–it did something for us that they are currently not receiving,” Celeste-Derry said. “What we left with when we came out of the schools was a level of confidence that allowed us to move all over about the city, the country and the world.”
Getting children to come to the center is integral to its longevity. However, more and more people are consuming information digitally, especially young people.
“We have to begin to think about how we incorporate our culture into the technological and future orientation of the world and create spaces that speak to young people when they walk in,” Eric Grimes said as he observed two young children in the store immersed in their cellphones during the discussion.
The economic realities of the city make holding a job more difficult, according to Karen Jackson, who has seen this struggle first hand. Unemployed persons have access to things that are more expensive for employed people, like health care.
“When we got someone going in a good program, she was on her way to getting her RN,” Jackson said. “It wasn’t even feasible for her to work at Ochsner because the health insurance was too expensive for herself and her kids.”
Williams introduced Baakir Tyehimba, the owner of Black Staar Café in Algiers. Baakir discussed his ideas on unity for African people, as he puts it.
Baakir likens his café, which also provides homeschooling, with Community Book Center in that it is a safe space for its community.
“It’s a primarily a gathering point for African people to really be and feel comfortable, happy and proud about being in a space that we own and control without any fears,” Baakir said.
His vision for African people comes in the formation of larger safe spaces, which serve to allow African people to control themselves.
“We are now on a mission to develop what we call ‘Little Africa.’ People don’t really get it yet,” Baakir said. “The intention, to kind of tie it into what we’re talking about, is to develop what we can parallel to places like Chinatown, Little Korea, German Town, a very, very ethno-centric place, community for African people that houses different institutions and homes.”
Baakir’s second concept of an African safe space is creating a town, Black Heaven he calls it. It’s guiding principle, African self-governance, a place where all aspects of life are controlled and free from white influence.
“I just want to separate, start a new little town, black town. ‘Black Heaven’ is what I call it. Most of us are not ready for that, not interested in that because we are, unfortunately, our values and standards are really founded on European domination,” Baakir said.
Baakir recognizes that his ideas are a little extreme and may not appeal to many.
“There’s the idea of everyone being on a bus, but not everybody wants to go to the same destination,” Baakir said. “My thing is complete separation, and self-governance and power for African people. If you don’t want to go that far, I’m cool with that.”