Baltimore becomes a top market for the sale of Afrocentric literature

March 12, 1994|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Writer

With controversial black professor Tony Martin due to speak in Baltimore tonight and fresh charges of anti-Semitism in the air, business has been good at Pyramid Books.

Tim Wilson, part owner of the Afrocentric bookstore in Mondawmin Mall, said yesterday he was sold out of Dr. Martin's "The Jewish Onslaught" -- the Wellesley College professor's tale of what he believes is a Jewish conspiracy against him -- and hunting for more copies.

Sales of the Martin book and the Nation of Islam's "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews," which have been condemned by Jewish organizations as anti-Semitic, have "doubled, if not tripled," Mr. Wilson said, as protests have stimulated interest in them.

As a purveyor of Afrocentric ideas -- the view that black Africa was the source of Western civilization and white scholars conspired to cover up blacks' seminal role -- Pyramid Books doesn't specialize in anti-Jewish literature. To be an Afrocentrist is not necessarily to be an anti-Semite.

But many Afrocentrists' contention that blacks were the real chosen people of the Old Testament -- and that modern-day Jews have usurped their history -- sometimes spills over into anti-Semitic attacks that strain relations between blacks and Jews.

Even without the controversy generated by black separatist Khallid Abdul Muhammad's two visits here last month and Dr. Martin's appearance at Walbrook High School tonight, Baltimore has been fertile soil for the Afrocentric view.

"It's been going on, but it was just going on underground -- and I liked it that way," said James Rashid Karter, a jazz drummer and self-taught Afrocentric lecturer who is a sponsor of Dr. Martin's talk and endorses his message. "If no one had bothered us, we probably would have had only 95 to 110 people there [tonight]."

Baltimore supports half a dozen bookstores that stock titles such as "The Mis-Education of the Negro," "The Black Holocaust" and "The Blue-Eyed Beast." A steady stream of Afrocentric lecturers teach Baltimoreans that black Africans built the pyramids and Jesus was black.

H. Khalif Khalifah, a Hampton, Va., publisher and book wholesaler who was a pioneer in marketing Afrocentric literature, calls Baltimore a "pretty good area. There's a big concentration of black population in Baltimore and Washington."

Mr. Khalifah said Baltimore ranks in the top five or six areas nationwide in Afrocentric book sales. The Nation of Islam's newspaper, The Final Call, regularly ranks Baltimore No. 4 in circulation (behind Chicago, New York and Newark, N.J., and sometimes tied with Washington).

The Afrocentric wave began in the late 1970s in New York City, Mr. Khalifah says, as Caribbean immigrant street vendors sold books on consignment.

The book trade really gained momentum in the late 1980s, and since then the number of black-owned bookstores has "mushroomed," Mr. Khalifah said.

Why the hunger for Afrocentric literature?

"It's identity, identity, identity, that's what it is," he said. "We lost our sense of identity. Books that people are really interested in are about the origins of man, our ties to Egypt, Elijah Muhammad's theories about the making of the white man.

"If you learn how to read and get a sense of your own worth, you buy it up," he said. "There's not too much market for fiction. Our history is like our fiction."

Mr. Karter, 40, who attended Edmondson High School, said it angers him to remember that no one taught him about black contributions to civilization. He began reading Afrocentric literature about seven years ago, traveled to Egypt, and "I was never the same," he said. "Learning our history is the topic of today. That's my whole life now."

Mainstream scholars such as Frank M. Snowden Jr., a Howard University professor emeritus of classics, agree that black history has been distorted. But he says Afrocentrists distort it further by calling Egypt a black civilization when it was really multicultural.

"Afrocentrists err when they condemn their critics as Eurocentric racists, if they are white -- and traitors to their race, if they are

black," he writes. "It is neither racist nor traitorous to insist upon truth, scholarly rigor and objectivity."

Not all Afrocentric literature is as rabidly anti-Jewish as the speeches of Louis Farrakhan or Khallid Abdul Muhammad, but there is a fundamental conflict over who are the true chosen people of the Bible.

"There's not one iota of truth that the Hebrews in the Old Testament were white," said Mr. Wilson. "If you say the Hebrews were the chosen people, there's more proof to show they were African than anything else. The Jews can't prove they are the Hebrews of the Book."

Arthur Lesley, library director at Baltimore Hebrew University, says the age-old question of who is the true Israel is a red herring: "It is whoever takes upon himself the responsibility of living like a Jew. Being the chosen people doesn't mean you have to rule the world. Just the opposite: It means you have to do God's will."

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