By Rachel Costello
There are many things that distinguish Community Book Center from your average bookstore. In addition to featuring books that are mainly by Black authors or cover topics relating to race, the Center also displays various African art and products. However, perhaps what is most responsible for Community Book Center’s uniqueness is its owner, Vera Williams. Walk into Community Book Center and more times than not, you will find Williams immersed in a conversation with a customer. The Center is not merely just a store but instead a place for the community to engage with one another, and Williams sets this example. Community Book Center aims to put a spotlight on African-centric literature and artwork, and it also hosts various events throughout the year for the community. The Center has served the New Orleans community for 40 years by helping to expose people to stories that are often disregarded. Amidst the current debates about whose history should be taught versus sidelined, this service the Center provides to the community is more important than ever.
Williams hatched the idea for Community Book Center while she was a substitute teacher, noticing that the school at which she was teaching lacked books written by authors of African descent or “that positively displayed images of Black children.” To address this issue, Williams started bringing her own collection of books to the school. Williams quickly saw the fruits of her efforts, noticing “that when children saw images of themselves and people that looked like them in the books, they were gravitating to it and they wanted to read more and so I knew that it was an excellent way to promote literacy amongst the students.” Thus, in 1983, Community Book Center was born.
Community Book Center was initially located in the house of Williams’ parents in the Lower Ninth Ward and provided a community service by making books and educational materials available to the public. As people gravitated towards the center, it soon became evident that an alternate location was needed. Over the years, Community Book Center has had four different locations, with its current space located on Bayou Road. Yet more importantly, as Williams described, it has “Moved from a home-based, community pop-up situation” to become “an educational, cultural, and literary hub” where people can meet to read and discuss books as well as share ideas with those in the community.
The Center has always been more than just a bookstore– it is a place for the community to gather. In addition to featuring African-centric art books, the Center hosts events such as book signings, children’s programming, and workshops, and it provides space for community discussions about social justice issues. In the wake of tragedies such as Hurricane Katrina, the Center has served as a space to get a respite from the chaos as well as a place to check in with others. As Williams said, “The key to what it is that we do is collaboration, working with other organizations and groups, because it really isn’t about us, about Community Book Center, it’s just about the number of lives that you can impact and the people that you touch in the process.” This collaboration is evident in all parts of the Center’s operations, whether that be working with various groups to put on community events, taking suggestions from customers about what books to feature in the store, or featuring African artists’ works.
In today’s political climate, in which critical race theory bans are being placed in schools, Community Book Center’s original mission of putting a spotlight on African and Black-centric stories is more important than ever. Although, as stated in an article by the Louisiana Illuminator, efforts to implement a critical race theory ban in Louisiana schools have failed, the stories of historically marginalized people are still threatened. As Williams explained, it’s important to be a seeker of truth since “You can read anything, especially nowadays.” Williams also spoke about how the desire to sweep certain histories under the rug isn’t new and instead is something that the Center has been combating for years. In fact, this desire to promote stories not normally highlighted and to encourage people to “seek truth and knowledge” is the reason the Center exists in the first place. Williams believed that exposure to the truth, specifically about history, is important since it helps to decrease ignorance, which in turn helps to reduce bias, prejudice, and incorrect assumptions about certain groups of people. The stakes of failing to teach history properly are high. Williams used the Tulsa Race Massacre as a prime example of buried history. The massacre occurred in response to the arrest of a Black man after his interaction with a white woman and resulted in white mobs killing 100-300 Black people and looting the African American district of Greenwood. Despite being a horrific event, it’s not one that’s widely taught. As Williams explained, neglecting to teach events like this has serious implications since it doesn’t necessarily make the events unreal, but instead only poses a major challenge to ensuring that these types of events don’t reoccur. Community Book Center is at the forefront of addressing these issues.
Community Book Center is an integral part of New Orleans, providing not only a valuable space for the community to gather and engage in a variety of events but also, in an age full of misinformation, The Center promotes the importance of seeking out the truth. Featuring African-centric art and literature, Community Book Center helps to ensure that these stories and cultures won’t be suppressed and forgotten. This is important, since, as the African proverb that Ms. Williams shared goes, “Until the lion tells his own story, the tale will continue to glorify the hunter.” Community Book Center is playing an essential role in elevating the voice of the lion.