Old Books Beckon
When bell hooks suggested that e-books can be “disappeared” by touching a button, my attention went into overdrive. Holding a real book in one’s hands is neither a luxury nor a sign of being pre-historic. Holding a real book is a desperate act of holding on to what is passing.
I enjoy buying and reading and re-reading old books. The materiality of the book counts for something and accounts for something else. Among my recent purchases at the Amistad Research Center book sale are a first-edition of Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944); The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot in 1919 (1922; rpt. Arno Press, 1968); George Washington Williams’ History of the Negro Race in America 1619-1880 and eleven books by Chester Himes. Nor could I resist buying copies of Freedomways, Black World, Black Theater #5 (1971), and a few rare issues of Umbra and Nkombo.
Embracing a person you have not seen or spoken with for fifty years induces a shock of joy; embracing an old book conjures a shock of odd recognition: antiquity is more real than the modernity of four seconds ago.
In the realm of African American literature, old books retard cultural amnesia which desires to assassinate black intellect. One reads old books to refresh memory or to acquire new memories. Old books are sturdy tools for thinking through contemporary issues. One reads old books in order to write, or to discover why, in the words of Himes, one continues “to live in a society where death has always been preferable to oppression.” The skin privilege of being African American is tough; those who have it resist social death. Old books and old time religion also help. If writing well was good enough for George Washington Williams, a former enslaved person, it should be good enough for me.
The Amistad sale was a godsend. I have more old books to inspire new words. Moreover, Amistad at Tulane University is a small version of the special collections at Howard, Yale, and Emory. It is the repository of the papers of Countee Cullen, Fannie Lou Hamer, Tom Dent, Hale Woodruff and Chester Himes. Having books once possessed by Amistad is an invitation to return there to do work with old papers, the parents of old books.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. November 11, 2013