Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Black Presses: How Three Got Their Start

*In celebration of Black History Month, the Indiana Writers’ Consortium presents…
Black Presses: How Three Got Their Start
By Shelby Engelhardt

It doesn’t take one long to come to the realization that publishing, as many of us know it, is becoming a dying art. With the rise of e-books it seems that the end may be near for a traditional book consisting of a spine and bound pages. Now add in the challenge of finding a publisher who is dedicated to bringing forth some of today’s best African-American literature, and you can find yourself facing a conundrum.  After searching high and low, I have compiled a short, and by no means all inclusive, list of African-American owned publishing companies and a little about each.

Small Press Publishing
The owner of Small Press Publishing, Haki Madhubuti, started peddling books on a street corner in Chicago.  He sold his poetry collection for one dollar per copy and sold 600 copies in one day.   After winning a literary award for $400, he purchased a mimeograph machine and set up shop in his basement. In 1967 Madhubuti, a lead figure in the Black Arts Movement, was distributing the work of many writers including Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka.  What emerged from this was a mix of scholarly works and literature promoting some of the greatest black thought in the world.

Africa World Press/Red Sea Press

Searching for the American dream, Kassahun Checole left Eritrea (then still a part of Ethiopia) to settle in upstate New York. He began teaching sociology and African studies at Rutgers University. While teaching, he realized that there needed to be more scholarly texts on African history and culture.  He launched Africa World Press (AWP) in 1983 with Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The Red Sea Press (RSP) was established in 1985 to distribute AWP’s catalogue, a task it took on for other presses as well. Each year it now publishes over 100 titles, mostly scholarly offerings, but poetry and international fiction have also found a home with these presses.

RedBone Press
After being told that there was no market for her collection of works on coming to terms with her sexuality, Lisa C. Moore self-published her work, does your momma know?, in 1997. Not long after, Moore was asked to publish another writer’s works on the same topic and that is how RedBone Press came to be. The Washington, DC based company has become a highly respected source of black queer fiction and poetry. Its authors have been recognized by many organizations including the Pen American Center, The Hurston/Wright Foundation and the Lambda Literary Foundation. All of this becomes more impressive when one realizes that RedBone Press is still a one-woman operation.

From a man peddling his poetry on street corners to a woman self-publishing her stories about coming out, many black presses have interesting histories and offer a wealth of knowledge to those seeking it. They give many black writers their start in a rewarding career. As writers, we know how hard it is for publishers to continue their art. Please support these independent presses, as they are the key to keeping publishing alive.

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