Philly: The City of Brotherly Love?

September 14, 2013

The ironies in life continue to amaze me. 

Carlotta Walls LeNier, one of The Little Rock Nine and author of A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock High School, recently agreed to an interview on my blog, Aberration Nation. As one of the first African-American students to grace the halls of an all white high school in the Deep South, Mrs. LaNier was spit on, yelled at, pushed, and otherwise abused simply because her skin was dark. All she ever wanted was a first rate education.

Mrs. LaNier graduated from Little Rock High School in 1960, the same year my parents graduated in a neighboring city. Although I was raised in the Deep South, I still found it shocking that Mrs. LaNier and her classmates were treated so horribly. Now that I’ve hit mid-life, 1960 seems like yesterday. How could such atrocities have happened yesterday?
The irony is that while I sat thinking this over, and creating my interview questions for Mrs. LaNier, I was turned away from a scheduled bookstore signing event because I’m white. Yes, I was invited to do a book signing in the heart of Philly, a city I’ve always hailed as progressive; the city of brotherly love. It’s my home now so I was quite excited about the October 3rd event in Center City. It turned out that I’m just not black enough; it had to be cancelled.

I received an email from the bookstore asking if I was black, or perhaps black and white. When the bookstore manager received my books, and examined them, he realized that perhaps I was white. Apparently, they don’t sell books written by white authors in their store. Of course, I understand themed merchandise; however, since the date had been set, I assumed they would honor the arrangement. I thought surely they could use what they viewed as a lemon to generate some form of literary lemonade. I could care less what color the folks are who purchase my books. When I choose a book, the color of the author’s skin doesn’t factor into my decision. Why should it influence theirs?

I let them know that my being white wasn’t an issue for me. Although it may be unusual for their store, I believed it could still be a successful event. In fact, I liked the idea because it was an opportunity to so wonderfully demonstrate that color doesn’t matter; all that matters is great literature. Unique qualities in both people and novels, regardless of what they are, make for fascinating content. Ironically, this is the overarching theme of my novel. They politely stated that the event would have to be canceled, books returned, end of story.
What? I just wasn’t black enough.

A dear friend of mine said that African-American bookstores are going out of business at an alarming rate. According to her, there’s a huge push to save and promote an art form that serves as a strong foundation for black communities. Well, perhaps that’s part of the issue. I had hoped that at some point, the foundation of our country would merge, and encompass all that we’ve been through and survived together. America has a strong tradition of fostering and supporting those joining us from countries around the world. Can we not share our common American history? Can we not share our incredible literature?

Many other independent bookstores are struggling as well. Should they toss out all the African-American literature so that their white customers will come in more often?

As one of my Facebook friends commented, “The only way we can eradicate racism is to be completely colorblind.” Another suggested that I invite President Obama and the bookstore owner to meet over a beer and discuss the issue. Not a bad idea, Mr. President.

Just like Mrs. LaNier only wanted a great education, all I ever wanted was to create something spectacular. Sure, no one spit on me or yelled obscenities, yet somehow, in the midst of a city founded on brotherly love, it seems we’ve all just gotten a boot in the rear. As for me, I’ll keep writing and selling my work to whomever is interested. After all, if you read my Facebook profile, you’ll see that my religion is love.
And love has no color.

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