La Casa Azul Bookstore: ‘El Barrio’s’ Literature Hub

Spanish Harlem, also known as “El Barrio” or East Harlem, is known for being the point of origin for a number of notable people: singer Marc Anthony, musician Frankie Cutlass, rapper Cam’ron, actor Al Pacino, rapper Tupac, poet Willie Perdomo, and bookstore owner Aurora Anaya-Cerda, who is the founder of La Casa Azul Bookstore.

The “crowdfunded” establishment was successfully supported by 500 funders after Anaya-Cerda ran the ‘40K in 40 days’ campaign. La Casa Azul Bookstore officially opened in El Barrio during the summer of 2012. (Photo : Latina book club)

The “crowdfunded” establishment was successfully supported by 500 funders after Anaya-Cerda ran the ‘40K in 40 days’ campaign. La Casa Azul Bookstore officially opened in El Barrio during the summer of 2012. (Photo : Latina book club)

La Casa Azul Bookstore opened in 2008 as an online resource that promoted literature by Latino writers, educational programming and children’s literature. The “crowdfunded” establishment was successfully supported by 500 funders after Anaya-Cerda ran the ’40K in 40 days’ campaign. La Casa Azul Bookstore officially opened in “El Barrio” during the summer of 2012.

The independently-owned vibrant literature hub offers its community a shared space for meetings, a bountiful retail selection, and a destination for events, book clubs, author signings, gallery shows, film screenings, workshops and writer conferences.  La Casa Azul Bookstore (143 E. 103rd Street) boasts culturally-based programs; they raise public awareness; and manifest an appreciation of art, all to celebrate Latino literature and culture.

Anaya-Cerda’s past includes her being a zealous supporter of cultural events in “El Barrio;” she’s is the founder of the East Harlem Children’s Book Festival; she was a middle teacher in East LA before moving to New York; she’s a White House recognized Champion of Change; she’s won a numerous awards; and she is on several committees that pertain to Latinos, women and entrepreneurs.

La Casa Azul Bookstore’s irresistible charm has earned it certain media attention, and the interest of NYC & Company, the tourism sect of the city, who’ve made it their mission to tie in East Harlem as a part of the “Neighborhood x Neighborhood” campaign, which aims to draw attention to communities that are less frequented in the five boroughs. The bookstore will be featured in the tour that will also take visitors to El Museo del Barrio and the Aromas Boutique Bakery & Café.

By Nicole Akoukou Thompson


Discovery of 1st Black Female Novelist

The discovery of the author’s real identity will forever change the history of African-American literature.

Screenshot of The Bondwoman's Narrative

Screenshot of The Bondwoman’s Narrative

(The Root) — Each February the Swann Auction Galleries in New York City holds an auction of rare artifacts from the black past. It features all sorts of treasures, like slave chains and other instruments of torture, daguerreotypes and sepia-tinged photographs, rare books and lithographs and occasionally handwritten manuscripts, usually letters but sometimes something as rare as a work of literature written by a canonical author such as Phillis Wheatley, let’s say. That auction is like taking a trip in a time machine to the black past; think of it as “black to the future.” Anyway, scholars and collectors look forward to receiving the beautifully edited four-color catalog that rare-book dealer Wyatt Houston Day prepares each year for the auction with the same anticipation that children look forward to Christmas morning.

The catalog for 2001 contained an entry that riveted me. It was entitled The Bondwoman’s Narrative, written by a woman named Hannah Crafts. It was claimed to be a “301-page handwritten manuscript purportedly written by a female fugitive slave.” The manuscript was being put up for auction by the estate of my old friend, Howard University librarian and editor Dorothy Porter Wesley, who had actually mentioned the manuscript to me years before when I authenticated the identity of Harriet E. Wilson, who published the novel Our Nig in 1859, still the first novel actually appearing in print and written by a black woman (in this case, by a free Northern woman who had been an indentured servant). Dorothy told me that she had a treasure that was even more rare and valuable than Our Nig tucked away in a file cabinet, but she was too busy to undertake any thorough research about it or its author.

To be honest, I really thought that she was just playing the dozens with me — that is, until I read the Swann catalog. Now here was that same manuscript, which, according to the note in the catalog, Dorothy thought was authentic. I decided that I would purchase it and see.

To avoid elevating the bidding, I asked a friend to bid in my stead. It went for $8,500, a lot of money, I know, but which I gladly paid. And when I read it, cover to cover, nonstop, I understood why Dorothy was so excited. It read like a book that could only have been written by a black woman and a slave. So I decided to devote as much time as I could to authenticating the date the manuscript was written, to find as much detail about the events and places about which she wrote in the novel and hopefully to find the author herself.

Continue reading

Meet the Father of the Harlem Renaissance

Author Alain Locke, the first black Rhodes scholar, launched a creative revolution.

The Root) — Alain Locke was born in 1885 in Philadelphia to freeborn blacks; his mother was a devoted schoolteacher, and his father a civil servant from Washington, D.C. The couple saw to it that Alain was given a most rigorous education, despite his being hampered by rheumatic fever as a child, which left him short of stature and with a weak heart.

After graduating from Central High in Philadelphia, he went on to Harvard. There he garnered a host of awards, the most prestigious being a Rhodes scholarship. He was the first black person to be so honored (and the last until the mid-1960s). He also decided to change his name, from the “Allen” given him at birth to “Alain,” using the French form to announce more prominently his aesthetic sensibility. Continue reading

Harlem’s Hue-Man Bookstore Closes Its Doors July 31

After 10 incredible years, Hue-Man Bookstore & Cafe has announced it will close its doors on July 31. A premier black bookseller known for its frequent and energetic readings and signings with authors such as Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, Tayari Jones, Jesmyn Ward, Manning Marable, Erica Kennedy, Rosa Guy, and E. Lynn Harris, Hue-Man Bookstore will be sorely missed in Harlem. It was the largest, most popular black bookstore in the area.

An announcement letter from the partners and staff of Hue-Man Bookstore explains:

We all know that there is a season for everything under heaven and the season of “traditional book” selling has come to a close.

When you do something for five hundred years and it works why change? But change has happened and the publishing industry is experiencing a new reality. Faced with tremendous social pressures to deliver the next big idea, celebrity books have become the interim hype, yet even that is not a sustainable model for an industry in turmoil. As stop-gap measures run out, the industry will be forced to reconcile the future place of “real books” in their business models and with continuous rumble and tumult, new ideas will percolate on how to deliver that new experience to the new consumer of books.

Hue-Man plans to respond to the ever-changing times by offering an online store. (Beginning in August, the online inventory will be discounted by 30 percent.) The store has also applied for a grant that would allow it to reopen its physical location at a later date, if awarded. The full letter outlines the store’s other initiatives and stresses that it can still be reached via its Facebook, Twitter, email and phone number contact information.

In response to the closing, Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy tweeted:

Sad to hear that @huemanbooks in Harlem is closing. Black Book stores are precious keepers of intellectual traditions. I’ve spent many an hour in @huemanbooks learning, growing, and enjoying Black discourse at its finest. Thank you for the years Marva et al!

Atria Books’ Vice President and Senior Editor Malaika Adero confirms Hue-Man’s vital importance to the black community and particularly to New Yorkers and Harlemites via her Facebook page:

Hue-Man Bookstore’s shift to online, closing the physical store 7/31, is big loss for New Yorkers/Harlemites. But, big ups to Marva Allen, for her amazing work, intelligence and commitment to our literary culture. Love and respect to you as you reinvent bookselling. I’m gonna be where you are. Thank you.

The forced closing of physical bookstores is an increasingly alarming trend, particularly for those who prefer the community of physical stores to e-readers and online purchasing. Hue-Man Bookstore & Cafe will be greatly missed, and hopefully, as the climate changes and as they continue to pursue funding, they’ll be able to reopen in the future.

Little-Known Black History Fact: A’Lelia Walker

A'Lelia Walker, born Leila McWilliams, was a visionary of the Harlem Renaissance who kept the legacy of her mother alive.

A’Lelia Walker, born Leila McWilliams, was a visionary of the Harlem Renaissance who kept the legacy of her mother – Madam CJ Walker – alive. The daughter of the first black female millionaire took over her mother’s business in 1919 after her death. Nicknamed the “joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s,” the socialite was known for her elaborate parties with the who’s who of New York.

Walker lived in the shadow of her mother’s grand life. She searched for her own identity through the support of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker used her mother’s fortune to finance the work of artists, writers and publishers, throwing lavish parties to connect them to one another for projects. Her New York townhome, nicknamed The Dark Tower, was where she held many of her talk-of-the-town shindigs, and Villa Levaro, her country home in Westchester County, was another location for Walker’s extravagant events.

Born Lelia McWilliams to Moses McWilliams and Sarah Breedlove (Madame CJ Walker), Walker never knew her biological father, who passed away when she was two years old. The St. Louis, Missouri native attended Knoxville College in Tennessee, changing her name to A’Lelia along the way. She was raised around the sound of ragtime and St. Louis’ Market Street.

After she took over the Madame CJ Walker Manufacturing Company, Walker attached herself to the Harlem Renaissance, becoming the subject of an outline by Zora Neale Hurston, Carl Van Vechten and Langston Hughes.

Walker married three times, adopting Fairy Mae Bryant, also known as Mae Walker, in 1912. Her daughter served as a model and assistant.

In August 1931, Walker passed away from the same thing that killed her mother: A cerebral brain hemorrhage caused by hypertension. Thousands attended her funeral, with an elaborate flower-dropping ceremony by a small Black Eagle airplane.

When A’Lelia Walker passed, Hughes called it the end of the Harlem Renaissance.

By: Erica Taylor, The Tom Joyner Morning Show

Arna Bontemps Museum looks back to see a bright future

The Arna Bontemps African American Museum and Cultural Arts Center is moving forward under a new director, which has led those who have been with it from the beginning to praise what it is today.

The Arna Bontemps African-American Museum in downtown Alexandria was established in 1992. The site is the childhood home of Harlem Renaissance era author Arna Wendell Bontemps. Town Talk file photos

The museum opened its doors in August 1992, but only as a fruition of four long years of work.

The Arna Bontemps Foundation got its start in 1988 under the guidance of founder Gwendolyn Y. Elmore and 16 other founding and charter members. Attorneys, clergymen and other area residents threw their support behind the mission to restore and relocate the childhood home of Arna Wendell Bontemps, the acclaimed author of the Harlem Renaissance era who grew up in the Alexandria area.

The house sat on the corner of Ninth and Winn streets when Bontemps’ family resided there, Elmore said. He made references to it in his own writings, and the impact his childhood home had on the man he became.

As such, it seemed a fitting setting to establish the state’s first dedicated African American museum, Elmore said. Officials established the museum within the home at its current location at 1327 Third Street in Alexandria.

And that was just the


Gwendolyn Elmore is past director of the museum and cultural arts center that celebrates the work of Arna Bontemps with writing and literary workshops and with jazz music festivals.

“The mission of the Arna Bontemps African American Museum and Cultural Arts Center is to further knowledge of the literary legacy of Bontemps and to promote awareness of African American history and culture,” Elmore wrote in a statement to The Town Talk.

The institution has pursued this mission by way of programs to inspire young minds in Cenla and beyond, Elmore said.

“Thousands of students have come through our programs and events,” Elmore said. “And we have had diverse participation.”

The museum paved paths for students to learn, to practice and to compete, said Haywood Joiner, president of the museum’s board of directors.

With the literary heritage of its namesake, programs with a writing focus fell naturally into the scope of the museum’s programs.

The museum brought in some of the most esteemed names in modern African American literature to help lead summer workshops or give lectures on the heritage of the written word in this region of the country, Joiner said. Authors Ernest Gaines and Ernest Hill are among those who have a hand in shaping the museum’s canon of contributions to Cenla.

“These are individuals who have national and international reputations,” Joiner said. “The Arna Bontemps African American Museum has been responsible for bringing that level of talent as far as writers of acclaim to the area.”

In addition to paying homage to established writers, the museum has spent much effort in inspiring new generations of writers during its nearly 20 year history, Elmore said. The formation of the Junior Writers Guild has given a banner under which aspiring authors can gather to share ideas and sharpen their literary abilities from an early age.

One of the biggest contributions the museum has made to Cenla’s cultural landscape is its role in the establishment of Jazz on the River concert, Joiner said. This annual event has been an avenue down which some of the most renowned names in jazz — such as the Marsalis family and Michael Ward — have traveled to Cenla to inspire the next generation of jazz enthusiasts.

The museum has also played a role in fostering a deep respect for the art of jazz among area youth through the formation of the Bontempian Big Band, Joiner said. The Bontempians — a collection of young musicians from the area — get a unique opportunity to receive jazz instruction, to practice and to expand their repertoire.

Probably the most important contribution made by the museum to the area and the state is the hosting of the Arna Bontemps African American Heritage Quiz Bowl, Joiner said. This event pits three-member teams from elementary, junior and high schools across the state against each other to compete in their knowledge of black history, Joiner said.

“That has been at the forefront in our community when it comes to knowledge of the contributions that African Americans have made throughout history,” Joiner said. “I’m glad to say that the quiz bowl is not just African American participants but participants of all ethnic backgrounds. It’s the bringing of our youth together.”

Yet, few of the museum’s achievements would not have come to fruition without one key element, Joiner said.

“It’s importance in Central Louisiana as well as its importance statewide we can attribute largely to the work Elmore has done with the museum in the past,” Joiner said.

Elmore — who among other titles earned the (National) Association of African American Museums Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009 — has served many roles during the museum’s history.

After retiring from 24 years of education in Rapides Parish, Elmore turned her attention to the formation and sustaining of the Arna Bontemps African American Foundation and Museum.

Last year, Elmore handed over the reins of the executive director position to Chad Bailey, who began his work with the museum as interim director in August 2011.

“With the new director, we still have some of those qualities (that Elmore brought to the position) there,” Joiner said. “But had it not been for Mrs. Elmore, I would say that the museum would not exist today.”

Review: ‘Carl Van Vechten & the Harlem Renaissance’ by Emily Bernard

In ‘Carl Van Vechten & the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black & White,’ Emily Bernard profiles the arts critic, a complicated supporter of black culture.

Carl Van Vechten & the Harlem RenaissanceA Portrait in Black & WhiteEmily Bernard

Yale University Press: 342 pp., $30

The line separating passion and obsession is porous. One step over that boundary, the territory becomes fraught — rutted with suspicion, quiet judgment if not outright accusation. This was the territory Carl Van Vechten — critic, novelist, photographer and, most famously, patron of the Harlem Renaissance — traversed with a singular vigor and preoccupation that bordered on fetishism.

Carl Van Vechten, critic, novelist, photographer and, most famously, patron of the Harlem Renaissance. (Carl Van Vechten / Associated Press)

He counted the black literati of the era — among them Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Nella Larsen, James Weldon Johnson — as collaborators and confidants. An idiosyncratic white man, of Dutch descent, Van Vechten dedicated his life’s work to, as Hughes once put it, “all things Negro” — literature, theater, ragtime, jazz and blues — nurturing art and alliances, but not without acrimony.

Van Vechten’s theater of life unfolded across Manhattan: both in opulent drawing rooms and at formal dining tables as well as Harlem “rent parties” or at smoky Uptown clubs. He “lived at the intersection of black and white,” writes Emily Bernard, an associate professor of English at the University of Vermont, in her deeply absorbing and elegantly evoked biography of a man and his era, “Carl Van Vechten & the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black & White.” His presence, however, among the black intelligentsia was far from neutral: Was he an insider or an intruder? An advocate or a voyeur? Van Vechten was not simply a champion of the black arts movement flourishing in the first decades of the 20th century but, suggests Bernard, a man who helped it “to come to understand itself.”

Van Vechten was born in 1880 and grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a child of progressively thinking parents — his father operated a lumber mill; his mother was “a suffragette who kept company with abolitionists.” He exhibited an interest in art early: photography, opera and writing. And though he made his way to the University of Chicago for his studies, “a formal education was not on his mind,” writes Bernard. “He went to Chicago for the art.” Once there, he set himself on the road to become a journalist — a critic, first with the Chicago American and later the Chicago Tribune. It would be his launching pad into the world of arts criticism and finally into a post writing about opera and ballet — in New York City — focusing on artists who were pushing boundaries. He was, Bernard writes, “the first serious American ballet critic” and the first to seriously appreciate the work of writer Gertrude Stein.

In those years, as a critic for the New York Times and Vanity Fair, he pressed his highly placed connections — most effectively Alfred and Blanche Knopf — to publish the work of heretofore unheard of poets, essayists and novelists writing forthrightly about the black experience in America.

But it was a very particular expression of “blackness” with which he was most enchanted. In a piece written in 1925 for Vanity Fair, he posited that “authentic black theater would not succeed until black artists began to value what was already there, which included ‘honest-to-God Blues, full of trouble and pain and misery and heartache and tribulation…'” [Africa, writes Bernard, “to Van Vechten was black authenticity, a primitive birthright that Negroes must reclaim if they wanted to make commercially viable art.”

He meant his statements not as patronizing but as a prescriptive. He viewed himself as an “insider” — a status that, Bernard explains, “he claimed and cultivated for the rest of his life — that of an exceptional white person among black people.” He would count many of the Harlem Renaissance writers not just as professional connections but as intimates. Out of his proximity came a 1926 novel that was to be Van Vechten’s “celebration” of Harlem, to advertise, literally, its “virtues and vices to white readers,” writes Bernard. The title, however, contains a racial epithet that proved beyond problematic then and is still charged nearly 100 years later. It was an audacious choice. One that would strain those long-cultivated friendships (as it did with Cullen) — and vilify Van Vechten beyond the circle. That choice was, as one of Van Vechten’s most vocal critics, W.E.B. Du Bois, characterized, “an affront to the hospitality of black folk.” The move was a breach that would shadow him the rest of his life, but one he never capitulated on nor apologized for.

Bernard’s examination, told in three acts, isn’t simply an exploration of Van Vechten’s life, letters and various boundary crossings; it’s also a meditation on a personal passion turned obsession — Van Vechten’s role as literary impresario had haunted Bernard since her junior year at Yale — more than 20 years ago. “It would be years before I learned to love the seeming paradox: a black woman inspired by the black addiction of a white man,” she writes in an author’s note at the end of the book.

Van Vechten didn’t just live his life, he consciously documented and curated it. He kept copious daybooks and composed long, elegant letters and took thousands of photographs, many of which are now housed at Yale University in a collection Van Vechten named for the man he felt embodied the dignity of the Harlem Renaissance: The James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection “founded by Carl Van Vechten” — the culmination of his life’s work to once again convene the voices of those architects of the movement. Bernard (who previously visited the correspondence between Hughes and Van Vechten in 2001’s “Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten”) dips into all of these troves to animate a narrative; consequently, the text feels alive with cocktail party conversation, vivid anecdotes, whispered intimacies and trenchant debates with friends and enemies.

It’s a bit like eavesdropping on a historic work in progress. Did Van Vechten overstep? Did arrogance obscure his intent to elevate? Bernard explains at the outset that her quest was not to determine whether Van Vechten was a “good or bad force”; rather, it’s a measure of legacy and the potency of language — the fraught territory of race and the still-present wound of racism. Van Vechten’s choices and motives became a catalyst for discussion among the black literati who would debate and sculpt and define for themselves — not simply the stigma of one word but also the language and stories that would come to define the complexity — “the epic theater of blackness.”

George is a Los Angeles-based journalist and an assistant professor of English and journalism at Loyola Marymount University.

By Lynell George, Los Angeles Times

February 19, 2012

Defiant Daughter – Harlem Renaissance Era Drama

A distinctly New York play finally lands in the city when Knock Me A Kiss, by playwright Charles Smith, begins previews Thursday in its Off-Broadway premiere at the New Federal Theatre on the Lower East Side.

Leading the cast, Tony Award nominee Andre De Shields said the role of W.E. B. Du Bois presented a great and satisfying surprise. “The role is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s tragic king, Lear, due to Du Bois’ inability to be spontaneous, his Ptolemaic need to be the center of his self-crafted universe, and his controlling relationship with his daughter, Yolande,” said De Shields. “Those similarities afforded me the opportunity to mine the tragic elements of Du Bois’ character.”

From left, sitting, Andre De Shields as W.E.B. Du Bois, and Sean Phillips as Countee Cullen. Standing, from left, Marie Thomas as Nina Du Bois, and Erin Cherry as Yolande Du Bois.

The year is 1928, and the daughter of America’s foremost black intellectual, Du Bois, is just one month away from marrying a young poet, Countee Cullen, whose work was considered one of the pinnacles of the New Negro movement, which we now know as the Harlem Renaissance.

The marriage marked the height of the renaissance and was viewed as the perfect union of African-American talent and beauty. It would unfold during the apex of a cultural phenomenon, which through intellect, literature, art, and music challenged the era’s pervasive racism and stereotypes, and redefined how America and the world perceived African-Americans.

What could go wrong?

“I want the audience, after seeing this play, to investigate these characters and dig deeper into the life of W.E.B. Du Bois, Countee Cullen, and the Harlem Renaissance,” said Chuck Smith, the Chicago-based, Emmy winning director of the play and one of its producers. “I want viewers to see what’s changed, and get more involved in our culture. They should know that the lifestyle of affluent black Americans is not that much different than anyone else,” Smith said.

Erin Cherry as Yolande Du Bois and Morocco Omari as Jimmy Lunceford.

The play opens as jazz bandleader, Jimmy Lunceford, woos a willing but skittish Yolande Du Bois, who insists that she and Lunceford be married in a manner befitting her stature. She tells her friend, Lenora, “I want to touch and kiss and all he wants to do is hump and bump.”