Janine Bell can recall when Richmond had multiple bookstores downtown dedicated to Black authors and topics. But that was several decades ago and their absence left a hole in Black literary resources.
Bell is president and artistic director of Elegba Folklore Society, a cultural center devoted to providing African diasporic cultural experiences through art, performance and heritage tours as a way of understanding the present by valuing the past. In 2013, to address the lack of Black-centric bookstores, she created the Black Book Expo as an annual event.
“As part of our mission at Elegba Folklore Society’s cultural education center, we explore cultural traditions and thought and the literary arts are important to that,” she says. “The expo allows us to present a concentration of Black thought.” The two-day Black Book Expo: A Conscious Literary Festival takes place the last weekend in February and features an array of authors and a vast selection of Black-written books, from histories to novels, social justice to children’s books and politics to memoirs, with just about everything in between.
Nodding to the racial justice movement that was ignited in 2020, the event became more extensive this year – that’s the “Conscious Literary Festival” part – to include live-streamed conversations on Elegba’s Facebook page during the three weeks leading up to the Expo. During the online events, Bell spoke with internationally and nationally recognized authors such as Molefi Asante, professor and chair of the department of Africology and African American studies at Temple University, scholar and human rights activist Queen Mother Dòwòti Désir and Anthony T. Browder, a publisher, cultural historian and artist.
The expo will also feature local authors giving talks and signing books both days of the event. One of those, Hollee Freeman, is the author of the children’s book “Muddy Ballerinas,” based on a true story of interracial and intercultural friendship between young girls. Three girls navigate their world through the lens of friendship and exploration over the course of 15 years, showing how society can counter the narrative of division and hate.
“Books written by Black authors play an important role in changing the narrative about our individual and collective experiences, which are as varied as we are as humans,” Freeman says. “In this tenuous social justice climate, these books provide rich discussion for not only Black people in the community, but for our counterparts who may have different racial and cultural experiences. Our stories serve as a reminder that there is a great deal in common when considering our collective humanity.”
Not everyone will be comfortable visiting Elegba’s downtown location during the pandemic, so there is online book shopping on the website. For those who do want to come out to hear authors speak and browse many books, appropriate safety precautions will be in place. The cultural center will be extended with a heated tent that allows for outside airflow. A delineated traffic pattern will be enforced with the entrance and exit on opposite sides. All guests will have their temperature taken, be asked to put on gloves and be required to wear masks. Bell notes that people can make multiple revolutions through the tables as long as they follow the traffic pattern to ensure safety for all.
“We’re in this social justice awareness period because we’re unaware and we’re unaware because we have been conditioned to think what we’ve been taught is all there is,” Bell says, stressing that if what we’ve been taught was all there was, there wouldn’t be cries for social justice. “This year’s Black Book Expo - expanded to become a conscious literary festival – will be a gift to people to fill in those spaces where awareness can grow.”
Black Book Expo: A Conscious Literary Festival, Feb. 27, 3 p.m. – 7 p.m., Feb. 28, 3 p.m. – 6 p.m., Elegba Folklore Society, 101 E. Broad St. and online at efsinc.org.