U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Black Bookstores and the African American Mind

Yesterday Black Perspectives published a fascinating essay on the importance of black bookstores to the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Joshua Clark Davis’ piece, a summation of a chapter from his larger book coming out this August titled From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs, is a reminder of the importance of intellectual spaces to intellectual history. I was intrigued by the essay—not just because of its fresh perspective on the intellectual history of Black Power, but also because African American bookstores played an important role in my own intellectual development. And as we begin to think about African American intellectual history in the 1980s and beyond, I suspect we will find that black bookstores continued to play an important role in the development of many African American intellectuals.

I wrote about the importance of black intellectual spaces created in the 1960s and 1970s for the blog back in 2014. In the comments, I briefly mentioned in comment to Tim Lacy the importance of a locally owned African American bookstore to my own intellectual development as a young boy. Reading Davis’ essay brought me back to those days. It also got me to thinking about the ways in which intellectuals sometimes (but certainly not always) develop their interests from an early age, for a variety of reasons.

Hamilton’s is a black-owned bookstore in Augusta, Georgia that my father took me to on numerous occasions in the early 1990s. There I was immersed in a historical world far different from the one I learned about in elementary and middle school. Where, in elementary school, I learned rudimentary facts about the American Revolution and the Civil War, at Hamilton’s I learned about the African American heroes and heroines of those events. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln loomed large in my American history classes as a child. At Hamilton’s, they were replaced by Crispus Attucks and William H. Carney.

Admittedly, I always gravitated towards the books about African American war heroes. That was partially inspired by my father showing me Glory—he made sure to sit me down to watch the movie as a five-year-old. Aware of my growing interest in history even as a child, he rented the movie and sat to watch it with me. It’s still the best movie viewing experience of my entire life, because there was a bond between me and my father shared over that film that remains over twenty years later.

My interest in war heroes was largely, however, due to my father’s service in the United States Army at the time. In a sense, learning about those earlier heroes was a way to learn more about my father—and my grandfather, who also served in the Army (not to mention all my uncles who also served in the Army or Navy). But I did also notice the books in the store about black feminism, Africa, and the black experience in places as disparate as Canada or Brazil.

Do not be surprised if future biographies of black intellectuals, or future works on black intellectual history in the 1980s and 1990s, speak to the continued importance of black-owned bookstores. Despite the closing of many African American bookstores over the last two decades, intellectual spaces will continue to be important to intellectual history. Books on feminist bookstores, for another example, also show the critical task such spaces play in intellectual development. Taking stock of how African American intellectuals needed such spaces to develop and grow over time will be a hallmark, I believe, of future works on the Black experience and American intellectual history.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Robert, thanks for this post. This is a good reminder of the inextricable intertwining of “the material” and “the ideal” in intellectual history. The disciplinary tendency (among some) to draw a sharp heuristic distinction between “ideas” and “social context” is itself a historicizable and thus explicable disciplinary move (though I am keeping most of my finger-pointing on that score to my own blog).

    But, in general, the notion that the history of bookstores or social spaces (real and virtual) that facilitate intellectual exchange is not itself a history of ideas in essence, but only a history of some of their accidents, is an idea that could use some interrogation. It has taken me a while to get to the place where I could recognize the significance of a work like Finding the Movement — on the history of feminist bookstores — for specifically intellectual history, but I think I’m close to getting there.

    Anyhow, we intellectual historians would do well to remember that physical spaces and social networks can be read as “texts” too, just as much as anything else can.

    • Such a wonderful comment. And you’re absolutely right–seeing these places as “texts” in themselves is critical for understanding why they’re important.

      We could–with considerable care of course–even think of cities in this regard. Down the road I want to do more with the city of Atlanta as historically an important intellectual site for African Americans. From the work of Du Bois at Atlanta University, to the Institute of the Black World, to the present, the city of Atlanta has a rich African American intellectual tradition. How that can be seen as a “text” I am not sure about it, but I think it’s certainly a good way of thinking through all this.

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