Black-owned bookstores have a long history in the fight for survival, and they were initially studied by the FBI because they were seen as threatening. Black-owned bookstores were contradictions to the stereotypes about black intellect.
“I think literacy is self-awareness, and literacy is the desire to take the self seriously,” said Sharon Holland, an American Studies professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. “It’s a politic. It’s real simple.”
Holland graduated from the University of Michigan with a Ph.D. in English and African American Studies. Her current research focuses on animalism and food as it relates to Blackness.
Her view of literacy is like a “lock and a key, and you know the key has to fit in that lock in order for everything else you want to do to happen.” Holland said many Black people are not given the resources to fit that lock into key as a result of institutional racism.
“The only way that Black literacy can really be increased is by addressing why these students aren’t as literate as their white or Asian counterparts. It has to first do with gerrymandering and property taxes and institutional racism as far as property ownership goes,” said UNC student and gender equity activist Tylar Watson. “Where are the more affluent schools? Where are the schools with all the great teachers? Where are the libraries filled with books that are accessible for children? Because they aren’t in places that don’t have money.”
The lowest rates of literacy are in the poorest communities, and many of the people in those communities are people of color. Davis said a Black bookstore not only challenges stereotypes of blackness, but it also creates a space for Black children to educate themselves in a system that has failed many of them.
“The things that are in those Black-owned bookstores are self-selected. For a community, that bookstore serves a community, just like a savings and loan serves a community," Holland said. “It doesn’t serve Wall Street.”
Black-owned bookstores have started to decline largely because of the rise of corporations like Amazon and Barnes and Noble. These organizations don’t contribute as greatly to the communities they serve.
“We’ve got tremendous race-based economic inequality in our country still,” Davis said. “It’s a very small thing that you can do, but if you’re contributing to a Black-owned business, you are trying to put some money in someone’s pocket, as opposed to big Barnes and Noble and big Amazon.”