African American Book Festival views current events through lens of literature

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Michael Lewis | Daily Texan Staff

Until Folktales bookstore was pushed out by major chains in 1999, the 1990s specialty locale provided Austin with a taste of African American literature through its selections and events.

Now, the Rosalind Oliphant, alumna and former owner of Folktales bookstore, is back for the eleventh instalment of the African American Book Festival on June 22-24. The event, which was founded out of popular demand for the events once held at Folktales, will include elements like book signings and literary and pop culture discussions.

“It is a lot of work, but it is worth it for me,” Oliphant said. “Especially when we can have a platform where authors can come to Austin and talk about their work and emerging writers to get an opportunity to pitch their work.”

Oliphant said the festival has grown exponentially since it was founded, and said they have since been able to host rising stars such as New York Times bestsellers and Pulitzer Prize winners such as Annette Gordon-Reed and Terry McMillan.

“I met Terry McMillan the year before I opened my bookstore in Austin,” Oliphant said. “I extended an invitation to her to be the guest writer at the opening event of my bookstore here in Austin. She wrote me a very kind letter and said ‘Thank you for the invitation, I won't be able to join you at this time.’”

Oliphant said it is important to have an event like this in Austin because it allows for successful writers, who might otherwise be ignored by major festivals focused on best sellers, to showcase their work and be honored. She said it also paves the way to healthy and essential discussions that are many times avoided.

“It puts African American literature at the forefront,” Oliphant said. “It is the headline, it is what we are focusing on, and it is an opportunity for the community, not just the African American community but the community as a whole to see us celebrating our literature, engaged in our literature and recognizing black authors and celebrating their work.”

Alumni Dr. Mark Cunningham said he will be participating in the event this year by leading a discussion on the ways literature and film discuss present day issues. Cunningham said the theme of his discussion goes along with the overall theme this year of overlapping literature with current events and discussions.

“I will be discussing Jordan Peele’s film Get Out,” Cunningham said. “Part of the reason I talked with Rosalind about doing that is because of the impact and popularity of the film. And, themes that are being discussed in the film are topical in terms of involving the black community in terms of white liberalism and how that has impacted black culture at large.”

UT history professor Peniel Joseph said his keynote address will be meant to create a discussion about the ideas and issues of the African American community nationally, but especially in the Austin community and how they can be related to historical pieces and characters of literature such as those of Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison.  

“By the time we get to 2017,” Joseph said, “After having a black president, the age of black lives matter, the current president and all of these issues that we have in the United States and globally it is very important to tap into that literary historical tradition to have an understanding of where we are at as a society today versus civil rights, social justice but also versus literary, artistic production.”

Joseph said he looks forward to his participation because having these conversations plays an important role in not continuing to ignore the societal issues faced on a daily basis by the citizens of the Austin, national and global community.

“We are in a period where this whole scale lies in mythology of American history,” Joseph said. “This idea of fake news, alternative facts, that the history we have lived as Americans can be wiped out and erased.”