Black history lives on at Marcus Books

Photo courtesy of Marcus Books

In San Francisco, Fillmore-based Marcus Books has been a hub for the neighborhood’s black community since it opened in 1959. Founders Julian and Raye Richardson believed it was the first African American bookstore in America. A lot has changed since it opened – these days, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and the poetry of Langston Hughes share shelf space with books like Justify My Thug and Heartbreak of a Hustler’s Wife.

But Marcus Books, and the family that runs it, still has the same mission: to reach out to African American youth, and help them build pride in their culture. KALW’s Holly McDede has the story.

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MALCOLM X: Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin to such extent that you bleach, to get like the white man?

HOLLY MCDEDE: In the 1960s, black leaders like Malcolm X brought a new consciousness to American race relations.

MALCOLM X: Who taught you to hate yourself? Who taught you to hate your own kind? Who taught you to hate the race that you belong to so much so that you don't want to be around each other?

Writers such as Amiri Baraka set their perspectives to poetry.

AMIRI BARAKA: Black art. Poems are bull****.

The concept of “Black Power” found deep roots in the Bay Area’s literary world. Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Ishmael Reed – as they emerged from the black arts movement, they needed a place to be heard, for their words to be read. That place was Marcus Books, in San Francisco’s Fillmore district – once known as the Harlem of the West. 

KAREN JOHNSON: You saw all these black people in business, like doctors and lawyers.

Karen Johnson is the daughter of Julian and Raye Richardson. She grew up in the Fillmore shop.

JOHNSON: The gas station and the pharmacy, and the people who sold the clothes, and the shoes, and everything, and the grocery store, was all black businesses.

Marcus Books was in line with the voices of the black community. Like those of Oakland’s Black Panthers, who gained national prominence with displays of militant social resistance.

Johnson remembers how the Black Panthers would use her parent’s store in the Fillmore as a meeting room.

JOHNSON: Huey Newton would be in the store when I came home from high school. And Huey was so handsome. And he was so brave. And my sister and I would come home from school and be like, “Oh god, it’s Huey!” Like we can't even look, we could never even have a conversation with him because we would have been like, “Take me.”

Johnson says the store drew prominent African Americans from all over the country.

JOHNSON: Bill Cosby had been here, and Oprah. And one of my favorites, Barry White. I got a hug from Barry White. Mohammad Ali and Rosa Parks, and Chaka Khan. We've had more writers than the whole Harlem Renaissance.

Karen Johnson currently lives above Marcus Books in San Francisco – it’s one of two that’s still around today. We walk in past walls painted purple, under Christmas lights strung across the ceiling. Bongo drums are scattered around the floor. When the first branch opened, Johnson tells me, their best selling books were by historian J.A. Rogers. And they’re still popular.

JOHNSON: Aw, just got them yesterday and they’re already gone! Because even people who love you and respect you will take your J.A. Rodgers books out of your house and not bring them back, because everybody needs to keep re-buying them. So all this stuff is footnoted.

People in history that we didn’t know were black. Beethoven. Did you know Beethoven was black? And at the time when the other composers were like dee dee do do da do, here he comes with don don don don.

When it’s got some punch like that, that’s pretty much a brother. A lot of people when they’re doing these classic concerts don’t realize they’re playing soul music, but they’ll get it eventually right?

Johnson picks up Hip Hop Speaks to Children, an anthology that highlights the use of rhythm and vernacular in hip-hop, rap, and African-American poetry. The artists range from Langston Hughes to Kanye West.

JOHNSON (reading from Langston Hughes’ “Harlem Night Song”): “Let us roam the night together, singing, I love you, across the Harlem roof tops. Moon is shining. Night sky is blue. Stars are great drops of golden dew. Down the street a band is playing. I love you. Come, let us roam the night together, singing.”

Whoa! I want to do that. A little Langston goes a long way.

While Marcus Books still carries Langston Hughes and J.A. Rogers, it moves a lot more of what’s called urban fiction. This genre includes books like Holy Hustler, Sugar Daddy's Game, and Girls from Da Hood: 1, 2, 3, and 4.

LANCE BURTON (reading from Girls from Da Hood): “The officer put his forearm on the back of Rip’s neck. And smashed his face into the hood of a car. ‘Say man, what in the f*** you doing?’ JJ said as he got out of the other side of the car. ‘Get your ass on the ground and don’t move.’ Rip spun around, breaking free, pulling a set of combinations into the officers face, all in one motion. ‘Rip, you cool?’ he asked. ‘Yeah, bro, let’s ride!’ Then JJ heard four more shots as Rip unloaded into the unconscious officer on the ground.”

While Johnson was resistant to carrying urban fiction at first, she realized that young African Americans have a different lifestyle from the people who have shopped at Marcus Books through the earlier years.

JOHNSON: They’re gonna be bored by Catcher in the Rye. They’re pace is three times faster than ours. We’ve been boring the mess out of them. Any kid can get a gun, and get some drugs. So they need some literature and an art that reflects how to get through that war period, and the urban fiction does that.

Johnson’s philosophy is to draw young people in with what they want, and then get them interested in what she thinks they need. Last year, a third of California's African American public school students dropped out of high school. The number of black men in prison is higher than the number enslaved in the United States in 1850.

JOHNSON: If my parents hadn't read that much, I would not have. If they hadn't made me go to the bookstore after school, I would have gotten into some mess. And I don't know if I would be alive today.

Johnson says that as an adult, her experience was crystallized through the education of her granddaughter, Jasmine. While looking through a collection of her elementary school artwork, she noticed all the drawings were of blond-haired, blue-eyed people. She went to the school to talk with her teacher

JOHNSON: So I ask the teacher, “Why does my kid have a hard time being black in your classroom?” She says, “What do you mean?” I say, “Look at this artwork. There’s no one that looks like me. Do you have a brown crayon? I thought, maybe if she’s brown crayon challenged, I’ll buy her a brown crayon.” She said, “I noticed your kid was black, but I never held it against her.” My husband and I looked at each other like, “You punch her; I’ll hold her!” So to keep from going to jail, we had to just move to another school.

A black nationalist school called Meadows Livingston, where a Marcus Books customer taught.

JOHNSON: She told my kid, “You can read!” Of course you can read! Here, go read this to your mom. That’s all there is to it: the attitude the teacher has to you. She could have said, “Calculus? You can do Calculus!”

Anyway, that kid is now the youngest person in UC Berkeley’s Ph.D program. She’ll get her doctorate when she’s 26 or 27. It would not have happened without the attitude that she got.

Jasmine Johnson is studying the African Diaspora, and when she’s got her degree, she plans on returning to the bookstore. She’s the youngest generation in the family – the new media generation – and that provides new challenges for the people who run, and care about, Marcus Books.

ISHMAEL REED: Amazon, Nook, Kindle, and all these devices will enable people all over the world to download books immediately, and that’s great. That’s gonna maybe save African American literature. That’s a heroic enterprise.

Author Ishmael Reed knew the original founders of Marcus Books. He still goes to the store to browse and buy, and he and his two daughters, also writers, have given readings there. Reed still carries the passion of the Black Power Movement of the 1960s. And he’s still provocative. He says his book, Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media had to be made in Canada after U.S. publishers refused to print it. You can’t find it at Barnes & Nobles, but you can find it at Marcus Books.

REED: I see Marcus Books as fulfilling the ancient role of preserving the texts. We’re under attack by the Tea Party, who want to end ethnic studies, who want to end the study of Arabic. We’re undergoing what might be called book burning, not literally, but the effect is the same in that experiences and culture of different people are being erased.

At Marcus Books, though, they are being retained. The writings of Marcus Garvey, the poetry of Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison’s Beloved. And then, of course, the multi-generational booksellers’ family favorite: a children’s story called Flossie and the Fox.

BURTON (reading from the Flossie and the Fox): “Flossie rocked back on her heels, then up on her toes, carefully studying the creature who was claiming to be a fox. ‘Nope,’ she said at last. ‘I just purely don't believe it. I don't believe you a fox.’ ‘My dear child,’ he said, sounding right disgusted. ‘Of course I'm a fox. Whatever do they teach children these days?’"

Jasmine Johnson represents the latest chapter in the story of Marcus Books. Her mother is part, and her grandmother, and her great grandmother. They’ve been sharing stories for generations, and building a lot of confidence for their readers along the way.

In San Francisco, I’m Holly J. McDede for Crosscurrents.

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