(I wrote this piece in 2007 for romance author Deirdre Savoy’s newsletter. At that time there was much controversy among both Black readers and writers about the quality of Black literature that was being produced.… More
The smell of vanilla brings me back to my mother’s teacakes. It is a key ingredient in those tasty treats of hers and one of my favorite smells and fragrances. Years ago I asked my mother for her recipe and I stored it away in my files and titled it Miss. Vivian’s Tea Cakes; that must have been 12-15 years ago but I did not make the tea cakes until after her transition. The first batch was slightly off. I adjusted the vanilla the next time. I could hear Mama saying, you have to see how it works for you; My sister said it is almost there.
Teacakes or tea cakes is an old tradition in my maternal line. According to my research tea cakes originated in Great Britain but it has long been a southern favorite. My grandmother would serve tea cakes and sweet tea at summer quilting bees on the veranda of the “Old House” in rural Arkansas. Tea cakes are one of those things that are not one of a kind; everyone has their own version. Some are cookie-like, some are soft and chewy like a mini cake, some are small and others larger and flat. I have eaten many tea cakes. I have had them from bakeries, farmers markets, from vendors at events and at Afternoon teas. Maybe I am biased because nothing compares to Miss Vivian’s Tea Cakes.
In the early 1980s I discovered a little tea shop-café in East Oakland owned by Miss Della, one of the few African American tearooms/shops in the country. It was on Mac Arthur Boulevard off 73rd Avenue. She had a huge collection of teacups that patrons and people from around the country sent her displayed around her shop. Her tea cakes came close to Mom’s; they were delicious.
So, a few months later I made the teacakes again. This time when I bit down on the crispy edged, soft melt in your mouth with the hint of vanilla inside, I knew I had gotten it right. Hmm, I feel like I can make tea cakes today.
Miss Vivian’s Tea Cakes
2 sticks butter or margarine
2 teaspoons vanilla
½ teaspoon soda
½ teaspoon cream of tartar
2 cups flour
2 tablespoons milk
Cream sugar and butter; add egg, flour and next four ingredients. Bake at 375 degrees. Makes about 1 ½ dozen cookies depending on size of tea cake.
Black Books in the Age of the Coronavirus
A Conversation about Black Books & Publishing
On Sunday afternoon, March 22, I attended a virtual meeting about the state of Black book publishing. Being in a forced shut-in due to the Coronavirus Pandemic led to a vibrant dialogue. “Keeping the Black Book Ecosystem Strong: Black Books in the Age of the Coronavirus” and why it is important to us, as a culture, to maintain our agency when it comes to determining how our stories are told according to Troy Johnson, founder of African American Literature Book Club (AALBC). He, along with Paul Coates of Black Classic Press and other book sellers, distributers, publishers, educator, librarians and authors laid out a blueprint of why it is vital that we charter our own paths in the business of Black Books.
Other notable panelists included James Fugate of Eso Won Book Store in Los Angeles, Kassahun Checole of African World Press, Shirikiana Germina of Sankofa Books in Washington D.C. and Cheryl and Wade Hudson of Just Us Books. Paul Coates and Katura Hudson of Just Us Books were the moderators and took comments from Kadija George in London, Nati Nataki of Maryland and poet/literary E. Ethelbert Miller, among others.
Uppermost, was the question of how Black booksellers are coping and staying solvent amidst the pandemic. James Fugate of Eso Books says his online book ordering has increased but there is a problem with the elderly population who are not computer literate. At the beginning of the Pandemic, Sankofa Books took the chairs out of the store because it didn’t allow for social distancing and with the lockdown of nonessential businesses, they are attempting to do online sells but have sent back many of the books to the distributor/publishers. Some of the book sellers are offering curbside service.
A dialogue ensued about us as a people writing, publishing and distributing our books. It was made clear that Amazon.com does not have to be the option for online businesses or otherwise. Troy Johnson founded AALBC 20 years ago. He used Amazon.com to sell his books until the cost became prohibitive and it was no longer economically feasible. He put measures in place to be able to sell through his own company. What he found when he dropped Amazon.com, was that he sold more books and gained more customers because many of his customers were anti-Amazon.com for whatever reasons. He did stress that there are challenges with direct book sales, but it is worth it. Nati Nataki from Maryland is co-owner of Everyone’s Place Books and Cultural Center. She stressed that they are here to help customers. Kassahun Checole, as a book publisher of African World Press from Trenton, deals with literature from the African Diaspora.
Shirikiana Germina spoke on her need to be more innovative as gentrification has invaded D.C. as it has in other metropolitan cities and Black bookstores need to have a plan to stay relevant and prominent. Germina owns the store near Howard University but her monthly property taxes are astronomical at $3,000 a month. She is securing an abatement and other measures to reduce it but until then someone on the panel suggested a campaign to write the City to reduce the taxes. It is vital the store remains lucrative through this pandemic crisis.
Another crucial dialogue was about social media and Black publishing. Should we be concerned about mediums we don’t own? Twitter, Amazon.com et.al? Someone said most of the online book sites were here before social media; we must utilize the Black bookstore websites. However, literary activist, E. Ethelbert Miller reminded us that we should find ways to use those mediums to promote ourselves. They all have advantages that we should utilize to our advantage.
Kadija George from London, is a publisher/literary activist working on her doctoral thesis and has been working with New Beacon Books which specializes in African and Caribbean literature as well as African American literature to document the 50th anniversary of the book store and other African Diaspora books stores but is closed down now due to the pandemic and is selling online. Fugate of Eso Won reiterated we have an incredible opportunity to use publicity for Black bookstores to sell directly online. Eso Won was going out of business a few years ago but one email by a journalist sent out to Los Angeles city officials, community leaders etc. got people to order books and the sales kept him solvent. He emphasized that every bookseller must have a stringent budget; that is the key to remaining solvent. Calvin Reid, a reporter for Publishers Weekly expressed this is a pivotal moment for independent book selling. A spokesperson from Mahogany Book Club which is an online book club and bookseller said Black booksellers must take advantage of social media and digital services.
Just Us Books is an online book seller and publisher specializing in children’s literature and according to Cheryl Willis Hudson is now accepting online manuscript queries.
Johnson said the Brown Bookshelf is an excellent resource for book lists as well as his site, AALBC. Alia Jones, librarian is going to make book lists available. Authors on the group were asked to list their books in the chat section.
The seminar ending with Coates saying they didn’t want people giving suggestions of what they need to do. If you see a need, then offer some assistance. The email address for more information is Blackbookcommunity@gmail.com.
I was aware of most of the panelists; some like Paul Coates and Troy Johnson have been in the publishing, selling and promoting of Black writers and books for decades. These esteemed speakers have stepped out and taken chances in charting their paths on their own terms and not without mistakes and challenges but doing so, nevertheless. I have long believed and advocated our ownership in the publishing game on our terms and applaud and support those who have done so. My feelings are those that can, should and start their own publishing houses, publicity and stores, whether they are brick and mortar or online.
I also believe in working with the systems and mediums that exist. Huffington Post and Medium both have Black/African American extensions, Black Voices and Zora respectfully where Black writers can have their voices heard. Black Twitter has been an outstanding advocate of African Diaspora issues, a voice that is heard internationally. While the publishing industry lacks diversity (77% white), they are on notice as publishing entities such as Lee & Low and Nothing But the Truth Press are pushing for diversity in big ways. When big name entities make desperate moves such as the Barnes & Noble Classics black-face debacle, their glaring mistakes come at a high price, but it is one more step to achieving our rightful place in all spaces. Our stories are plentiful and here to stay and we will not be deterred.
I could not complete this article without mentioning my local Black bookstore. Marcus Book Store in Oakland, California is the oldest Black bookstore in the U.S. The original store in San Francisco was founded over 60 years ago by Drs. Julian and Raye Richardson. Recently, our dear Dr. Raye made her transition in February. She was the first Chair of African American/Black Studies at San Francisco State College that set the blueprint for Black Studies all over the country. Her memorial was to have been on March 13th at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco but due to the mandatory shelter-in-place and social distancing that the entire country is in, it has been postponed until further notice.
While Marcus Books was not represented at the virtual seminar, unofficial representatives Christine Munroe, Marcus Book Club member and book activist, Wanda Sabir, English professor/writer Wanda Sabir, and me, Dera R. Williams, all of us long-time Marcus Books supporters were present.
Many resources including bookstores, book sellers and online resources regarding African American literature and publishing were mentioned in this seminar and Christine and I have compiled a list for your use.
Black Book Publishers, Black Book Stores, and Resources
African American Literature Book Cub (AALBC)
Black Audio books
Just Us Books
Heart and Soul Magazine plans to post black books
Black Classic Press
Eso Won Books
African World Press
Sankofa Videos Books & Café
Everyone’s Place Book Store Cultural Center
Some of you know, but many of you do not that I recently published a preview of my long awaiting collection of childhood memories. In My Backyard: Stories of Growing Up In Oakland- A Preview is 13 stories from my collection of dozens of stories I started writing back in the early 2000s.
I would see someone I knew from one of my old neighborhoods or classmate and the memories would come and I would jot them down in a journal. I have accumulated many stories and anecdotes over the last almost 20 years. I had been encouraged to send these stories out to the world ( a few of them have been published in various anthologies and journals) and in the last year have looked into publishers but have decided that this is the year I will finally publish them. While I am preparing to release a full volume in fall 2020, I have gone ahead and released this preview.
I hope you will enjoy these stories and will be excited about the rest come fall. Hopefully you will spread the words with others.
In My Backyard: Stories of Growing Up In Oakland
A Preview is a sample offering of my long-time compilation of “Oakland Stories.”
Full release is slated for Fall 2020.
The cover is my kindergarten class at Garfield Elementary in 1955, Oakland.
I am the little girl standing below the teacher on the right.
No Pictures Allowed
Our group had been told to start on the bottom level which was dedicated to the beginning of the Black experience in America. An energetic young woman, an attorney, who obviously loved an took seriously her job, was our tour guide. She brought us from the 16 th century and on through slavery espousing her knowledge of the exhibitions and our history. After the tour I went on to other exhibits on that floor. Visitors were taking pictures and videotaping all along this tour soaking up the experience, at times looking solemly and even at times, wiping away a tear drop or two. And then we came to an exhibit that clearly stated, NO PICTURES ALLOWED.
The exhibit was of Emmit Till. I stopped at the edge of the exhibit which veered into a separate partition. I had read the stories and a book about the fourteen-year-old Black boy from Chicago who was visiting his mother’s family in Money, Mississippi. There were reports of disrespect to a white woman and this young boy, this manchild was lynched and beaten beyond recognition. There is an infamous photograph of thousands of people viewing Till’s body, raw and in the state he was found because his mother wanted the world to see the cruelty that had been done to her child.
I hesitated at the door. I put one foot forward and stopped when I saw a casket. I knew then that this was a replica of Till’s original body and casket. But I could not go another step forward. I stepped back. You need to see this, mind told me. But then, the next moment my spirit said, but why do you need to see it? Why do you want to view such a horrific sight? I made a decision that I was going to skip this exhibition. I just could not do it. I slowly continued to the next exhibit. I saw an elderly woman look up at the Emmit Till exhibition and slowly walked past it. It wasn’t just me.
Dera R. Williams is a published author of fiction, nonfiction and memoir, a griot who has co-authored a short story collection and a collection of childhood memories of growing up in Oakland.
September 1st was the beginning of the Melody & Dera Get Finished Workshop. Now is the time to put up or get up. I turned in a proposal to the African American Museum & Library of Oakland (AAMLO) to share my growing up in Oakland stories. Now I need at least 5 pages of my in-progress manuscript, The Enchantments, by Thursday. But first I need to do some organization of my characterizations.
The Magic of Memoir
I spent today on a five- hour webinar. So very informative and enlightening. The Magic of Memoir covered the many areas and nuances of memoir writing. From narrative arc, memoir as life story, the many paths of publishing to writing for love and money. The instructors were dynamite. Now to process it all.
A Tale of Two States in eMerge Magazine
My new publication showed up in eMerge Magazine, A Tale of Two States.
Blogtalk Radio Interview in Collaboration with All the Women in My Family Sing and Girls Fly!
I was interviewed recently on Blogtalk Radio. Girls Fly! with Author, Dera Williams – “ Finding Your Written Voice Series’
Podcast Blogtalk Radio interviewed by Girls Fly! Founder Gael Sylvia Pullen.
A Tale of Two States
Arkansas. The state where I was born. The place of my ancestors, family reunions, family weddings and celebrations and a place where those who have left come back to as their final resting place.
I had come on this journey this year 2019 in the month of June to commemorate my mother’s burial grave in the Rowland family burial plot at Batts Chapel Cemetery in the little town of Huttig in southern Arkansas. My mother left southern Arkansas to attend Philander Smith College, a small Historically Black Methodist-run college in the capital city of Little Rock. After graduating, starting her teaching career, married and had me and my brother, my parents decided they would make the trek which came to be called the “Great Migration” when thousands of African Americans moved from the south to the North, the Midwest, East and Western states.
My family left Arkansas in 1953 when my brother was just two months old and I was two years old. As much as my mother acclimated to California and made a life for herself, she was ever a southern girl at heart and always wanted to be buried where she and her family still have ties. The ‘old place’ where my grandparents raised their family is still standing on heir property and elder members of our family are receiving compensation for the lumber the beautiful pine and oak trees produce.
As we drove, two carloads of us, from Little Rock to Union County, about a 2 ½ hour drive, there was no denying the lush beauty of the natural forest of majestic pines towering along the highway. We drove past numerous small towns with small populations and being in the Bible belt there were churches prominent along the way. I became nostalgic watching the scenery before me.