Reflections from the 1st Annual National Antiracist Book Festival

This past weekend I went to a book festival. Not that unusual for me. I like book festivals, and whenever there’s one I can make it to, I go. And if there isn’t, I make my own by buying way too many books. Being surrounded by the written word, the people who write it, and the people who read it is one of my favorite things to do. But this one was different. It was the National Antiracist Book Festival, being held at the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University in Washington DC.

The fact that I was going with two cool women sweetened the deal, but I have to admit, I’ve been in a funk recently at my unwelcome sense of grievance about the resurgence of virulent and often violent racism. I imagined an ‘antiracist’ book festival would be much too heavy for a Saturday afternoon, and would only feed my not-entirely-positive outlook because I would be in a space with similarly aggrieved people. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The thing is, I should be one of the least aggrieved Black people in America. I grew up in a majority Black nation and can honestly say that I never for one solitary moment harbored suspicions of my own inferiority to any other race. The American Civil Rights Movement was largely of academic interest, and American bigotry was a curiosity and little more. Bigotry, to me, was an affliction carried by the bigot and touched me not at all.

And then I moved to the States when I was seventeen and though I remained largely unscathed I had a slow, sad education about so-called “equality” in America. Some of it I learned it through names like Yusuf Hawkins, Amadou Diallo, and Rodney King. Every year there was a new name. I listened as Black boys-barely-turned-men who I knew well, and some of whom I loved spoke matter-of-factly about their dread and distrust of law enforcement. And finally—as is a rite of passage for most Black folks—had a few of my own perplexing and nerve-wracking run-ins with cops just because of where I was, who I was with and yeah, I really do think because of the color of my skin, and that of my companions.


“So much of the national dialogue about race deals with either terrible trauma or black excellence. I was more interested in the space in between, because that’s where I exist.” 

Damon Young, author of ‘What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker: A Memoir in Essays’

But by and large, I believed there were ways to channel those experiences into something positive, and through activism, allyship and advocacy, there was change to be made. We just had to “do the work”, right? Over the last few years, I’ve lost much of my faith in advocacy, no longer believe in allyship, and am pretty much low-key enraged about racism all the time.

So yeah. An Antiracist Book Festival could have been either the best place for me to be, or the absolute worst. Thank God, it turned out to be the former. My friends and I only had time for two sessions. I went to On Poverty which featured Damon Young and D Watkins, moderated by Vann R. Newkirk. Damon Young is very much, as advertised, a Very Smart Brotha, as were the other two men on the panel. Apart from the gems they were dropping just about every other sentence, I was just enriched by the way they spoke. Like they were talking to family; like we the audience were “in this thing together” with them, and instinctively understood every emotion, and experience they described. And it was true. There were mm hms and finger snaps and head-nodding aplenty.

The room (and as far as I could tell, the entire book festival) was mostly Black. Damon and D Watkins talked about everything from how Black writers can shed their inclination to use language suitable for majority (i.e. white) consumption; to Blackness becoming performative as you rise in socio-economic status. Think about that: Blackness as performative. That’s some deep shit. What that refers to is that insidious process where we strip ourselves of Our culture to assimilate, such that markers of Our culture become a kind of performance. We “Black it up” around Black people when we come up because we need to reassure them we’re not too far gone; or we “dial down the Blackness” around white people because sometimes it’s just more expedient that way, or we maybe we would rather just show them the mask than expose our complete, authentic selves. We perform Blackness, gauging how much of it to exhibit based on our audience. Like … yo … tell me that isn’t a thing.

The second session I went to was DeRay McKesson, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton and Wesley Lowery On White Supremacy. Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, who wrote ‘A Kind of Freedom’ talked about her use of fiction to demonstrate the impact of white supremacy on systems, families and individuals in that insidious way that often escapes detection now that we’re no longer living under the old Jim Crow; and the ways that the New Jim Crow is just as destructive of Black lives. DeRay McKesson blew my whole mind when he talked about why it may be more constructive to “preach to the choir” when fighting against white supremacy. I was so feeling him on that, because lately, my view is that when you’re at ideological war, you don’t have time to coddle the enemy or win over uncertain, mealy-mouthed and feckless so-called allies. You just fight alongside those who are willing to fight with you; and leave the rest to tend to their own hearts and minds.

Apart from the sessions, there were the books, Lord the books—all of them focused on deconstructing the experience of Blackness, and the many permutations of how this society responds to and tries to kill not only Black bodies but Black identity itself. If you are the type of person who shies away from difficult conversations, this would not have been the place for you. And if you’re someone who believes the fight is one for acceptance and assimilation you might have had a problem with all the locs, and natural curls, and kinky ‘fros, not to mention the conversations about blackity-black-Blackness and the hysteria that Blackness sometimes produces in a white dominated society.

For me, this event was right on time. Because I realized that what’s been ailing me hasn’t been too much conversation about race, it’s been too few opportunities for meaningful discourse about race. And not even race, but about Blackness, specifically and what that means in a positive, affirmative way, rather than just in response to the negative stimuli of yet another bad police shooting or video of a young Black boy getting his head bashed into a concrete pavement. This event was precisely where I needed to be. It was a place where my mind united with my heart and my creative soul. I needed that. And for sure, I will go again.