On Saturday around 40 or so people gathered in Market Square for #readablackauthor as part of #blackhistorymonth. It was originally meant to take place outside the Council House but we were moved on because there was a wedding and presumably the bride and groom didn’t want a bunch of eager readers’ photo bombing their special day.
I love events like this because they force me to think about my reading habits. Although I am increasingly listening to books on audio (I have to get a lot of buses) and reading on electronic devices when researching (because I can underline passages and then magically export these as a word document) physical books are still my favourite means of reading. Therefore my bookshelves are a good indicator to my reading habits.
The bookshelves in my front room are in alphabetical order. But they’re also classified according to genre. In addition to this I have two sections on Nottingham authors and one on Booker winners. So I was quickly able to gauge not only how many Black authors I had but where they fell in terms of these categories. In terms of the Booker prize there have been three Black authors who have won the prize since it was launched in 1969. These are Ben Okri (1991), Marlon James (2015), and Paul Beatty (2016). Of these three winners I have read and own a copy of Marlon James’ A Brief History of Killing. In terms of Nottingham authors I have three Black authors on my shelves. These are Panya Banjoko No Tears For Me My Mother, Norma Gregory Jamaicans in Nottingham and a couple of Arthur Ness collections by Wilf Morgan.
My access to wider Black literature has largely come about through the book group I’m in. It’s a real diverse mix of people and at one point included members from Italy, Germany, Scotland, France, Russia, and America. Consequently, I’m not only encouraged to see books from different perspectives but the books that I’m introduced to tend to be authors I’ve not heard from. But I should point out that none of the members of my book group are black.
Our selection for October is James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956) which deals with complex representations of homosexuality and bisexuality and was written before the Gay Liberation Movement. But before reading this I’ve started on another of his novels, Another Country (1962), which deals with race, nationalism, sex and love in an era of ignorance, aggression and hope. There’s a real energy to it and I can’t put it down.
The minute I googled Baldwin I immediately recognised his face but I was completely unaware of how much he’d written and what a pivotal role he played in the Civil Rights movement. This then led me to watch the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, which is based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House. He died before completing it and his publishing house McGraw-Hill took the unprecedented step of suing his estate to recover the advance they’d paid him for the book. The lawsuit was eventually dropped although the damage was done.
Baldwin is such an eloquent talker and frames the civil rights movement in terms that make most sense to me: The history of Black America, of slavery, is the history of America. You can’t separate the two. But getting people to recognise this is difficult and requires courage: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
When I created Dawn of the Unread my intention was to celebrate Nottingham’s literary history and to get people reading about their home town. However, this raised many issues, one of which was the lack of Black representation. This wasn’t through choice. It was a fact of history. There are very few Black Nottingham authors. Therefore our last issue was dedicated to George Africanus and George Powe and ended on a positive note, celebrating the contribution of organisations such as Nottingham Black Archive (NBA) who are helping to address this balance. The NBA were also responsible for the flash reading mob on Saturday.
#ReadaBlackAuthor was at 2pm on October 21st in Old Market Square, Nottingham.
Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.