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  • Dr. Obari Adéye Cartman

Is Black Success Possible without White Infrastructure?

Pres. Obama has kept his Black card by playing basketball, singing Al Green and choppin’ it up with Kendrick Lamar. I mean he’s really for real Black though. Esperanza Spaulding counts, the Trayvon Martin comparison counts, dapping up Kevin Durant, his swag walk. Above all he has supported the most important Black institution there is -his family- a legit Black wife, two very Black children and he lives with his mother-in-love . However, some numbers suggest that Black America is worse off since his presidency. I wonder if that has something to do with many of us focusing more on the cultural expression of Blackness than infrastructures that provide basic necessities: food, water, land, shelter, clothing, health, peace, joy, education. What if, for instance, Malia went to Howard instead?

I decided to go the “all Black everything” route last year when I published my book. In the text I encourage us to do for self, so it felt hypocritical to let Amazon make money while I advocate Kujichagulia. I had a vision of becoming a model for large-scale collectively sustained Black success. It was unsettling trying to think examples and only coming up with Marcus Garvey and Tulsa from decades ago and Tyler Perry today. Independent black bookstores are barely surviving, so I dreamed of doing my part by creating a demand for my work to then say ‘you can only buy it from a Black owned bookstore’. Which still sounds good, but I’m starting to have some doubts.

I have a love hate relationship with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Love because he’s brilliant. Envy is a better descriptor than hate. Not being able to admit you’re jealous can be worse than the jealousy itself. He released ‘Between the World and Me’ a couple months after I released ‘Lady’s Man’. Both our books are a love letter to young Black men. His book has gotten a bit more attention. I’m happy for him because the book is incredible, but so is mine. My most bitter moment happened at a high school I work at where I’ve handed my book to the Black principal, AP, and dean. A couple weeks ago a white teacher had the idea to start a book club for some boys and ordered a box of Ta-Nehisi. The teacher had no idea I wrote the perfect book for what he wanted to accomplish, and the boys could be in direct conversation with me as they read. What’s my point, beyond that I’m a hater? I wonder if Ta-Nehisi could have had the same success if he released his book through Black Classic Press, his father’s independent Black publishing company.

I don’t mean money when I say success. We use code words like “major” or “mainstream” to refer to white infrastructure (they secretly suggest legitimacy). It’s true for many mediums of art and enterprise. An underground hip-hop artist, for example, “crosses over” when signed by a white label or gets rotation on white owned tv, radio or websites. The kind of success I want has more to do with impact. When I hear people define success by ‘just changing one life’ that sounds too small. Especially while we got enemies planning to impact our children by the millions, through diet, education, mass incarceration, and toxic entertainment.

White infrastructure got a head start. Perhaps I’m thinking about it the wrong way. It’s only been a year. This may be exactly what building Black infrastructure looks like (without consuming the massive amounts of blood white infrastructure relied on). Starting with the writing process in Black owned coffee shops [Sip and Savor in Chicago]. Then using a Black literary consultant [Patrick Oliver] to help me find Black editors and a Black book printing company [BCP Digital]. The book itself was an all Black collaboration including photographer [Dominique Shepherd)] cover design and internal layout [Cassiopeia] and additional art/design elements [Dane Verttah]. I had a black web designer [Bryant Cross aka Kwabena Foli]. Most of the marketing was done by The Black Mall, including email blasts and promo material design, for flyers and banners that were printed by a Black business [We Print for Less]. The book includes a mixtape full of brilliant Black artists. And right now my book is only available on the shelves of Black businesses and bookstores in Chicago [Culture Connection & Underground Bookstore], Nashville [Alkebu-Lan Images Bookstore], Philly [Black and Nobel], Washington DC [Sankofa Books], Harlem [Sister’s Uptown Bookstore], Detroit [Source Booksellers], and New Orleans [Black Star Books and Caffé].

It’s been a good year. Very Black and wholesome. It feels good to stick to my plan. But I wonder if I’m doing it wrong. I wrote a book with goal of competing against the mass distribution anti-blackness and unhealthy masculinity. I deliberately avoided jargon. I never said “African-centered”, “womanist”, or “nationalist” but introduced ideas aimed at Black folk that might not be in the rooms I frequent. I want the book to a liaison. To preach beyond the choir. So if I limit myself to independent Black venues knowing that the masses of our people aren’t going there, then I’ll never accomplish my mission. I can’t count the number of times someone told they looked for my book on Amazon and stopped thinking about it after they couldn’t find it. I’ve also had people tell me they didn’t trust putting credit card info in my personal website. If the point is to get the book in as many boys' hands as possible does it matter how it got there? That’s a real question. I really want to know what people think. It’s a weighing of compromises and I don’t know which direction to go. I want to be patient but the more young men I meet the more compelled I feel to add to their conversations with urgency.

How have others navigated this dilemma? Speaking to people where they are, via the avenues they trust, while simultaneous trying to challenge us to be better, move past our comfort zones, stay committed to our values and build independent institutions. Any advice?

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