As nationwide protests against the killing of black Americans by police continue, Inc. has asked black business leaders in or near hot zones to tell us what they are experiencing.
For two weeks, outside Harriett's Bookshop in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Fishtown, owner Jeannine Cook has been handing out free autobiographies of Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X, as well as copies of Adrienne Maree Brown's Emergent Strategy. The initiative started with an anonymous $100 donation to the store, which was founded to celebrate black female authors, and then a subsequent crowdfunding campaign. To date, Harriett's has donated more than 100 books to protesters and interested passersby. Following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, Harriett's has also received so many online orders for antiracist texts--including White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi--that the staff has had to close the online shop for days at a time. Cook, who counts Tubman (the store's namesake) and author Toni Morrison as two of her biggest personal influences, believes books have the power to change people's minds and to reinvigorate activists and organizers through the history of the fight to dismantle structural racism. --As told to Gabrielle Bienasz
We had just opened on February 1, and then had to close six weeks later because of Covid-19. Our collection is designed to celebrate black women authors, artists, and activists. Before we ever opened, we sold out our first set of books. I didn't have a point-of-sale system yet. We had so many orders that I needed to kind of just put a pause on the website. The customers were like, well, get a Venmo--we want to buy books.
We decided, after what happened with George Floyd, that we wanted to get books out on the street. It's really important that people have education, knowledge--a historical basis for the work that they're doing, if they want it. The right to life is not a new fight, and the way that we're fighting for it is also not a new way to fight for it.
We weren't seeking donations. We were just trying to do the work. Once the people are involved, and the people make a decision about what they would like to see, there's really not much that anybody can do to stop that. It's almost been like books have been a form and a part of the protest, at a granular level, which I think is really interesting and really powerful.
I do want to say that the neighborhood--even though it's a majority white neighborhood with a history of high racial tension--has been super, hella supportive. When I went over to Minneapolis for the day to pay respects to George Floyd, there was a woman standing out in front of the bookshop just so that nobody would mess with it.
Emotionally, it's been up and down. Just being in Minneapolis hit me really hard. And being over there and being concerned that folks might loot and riot at the bookshop and just feeling like, you know, after Covid-19, I cannot take another blow. I can't emotionally take another thing. But who knew that all of the orders would come our way as opposed to just another punch in the stomach?
I think literature is important for empathy building and dialogue. It helps us try to look at the world through other people's eyes and ask ourselves hard questions. How are we to be exposed to other people's insights and stories unless we do so through characters?
Take Toni Morrison's Beloved, where an escaped enslaved woman decided to kill her newborn baby rather than let it go back into slavery. This was a remarkable story about the power of motherhood and how much freedom really means to people. I read it when I was pregnant. That particular question has never left me. Like Harriet Tubman said: What are you willing to risk for your freedom? And I think that's a question we all need to be asking ourselves consistently, especially as you see different types of overreach, like what's happening with law enforcement in this country right now.
For Sandra Bland's birthday, I wrote an essay about an experience when I was actually brutalized by police. It's way more common than people understand. I was trying to tell a woman yesterday who came by the bookshop. I was like, I get where you're coming from, but have you ever actually been beaten by the police?
Philadelphia was the first city that Harriet Tubman came to when she escaped enslavement. I always felt like we can build our own monuments for people as opposed to waiting for the city or the state to do it. And so I see Harriett's Bookshop as being kind of both, both the monument and also a bookstore.
One of the things that I would really love to see happen is for there to be more examples of this in more communities. I think it would be really dope for us to open an Ida's or a Corretta's. I'm like, who else? Who else needs a bookshop? Who else needs a monument? I don't have to wait for anyone else to lift the voices of the people. We can do that ourselves right now.