OAKLAND—Traveling along International Boulevard, all the common staples of East Oakland are clearly visible.
Decrepit roads, family markets of Latin descent, fast food restaurants, liquor stores and graffiti spread throughout walls of businesses, houses, and other empty places that used to be storefronts.
There are a few spots on this street and around East Oakland where one would not expect to see children’s literature: barbershops.
“It’s a blessing to have somebody like that in an area where (books) are coming from someone you don’t even know, barbershops are a versatile environment, it’s a perfect place because kids are definitely are going to come here,” Mario Bell, owner of Pepper Cuts barbershop said.
Tucked away in the corner of Bell’s shop is a basket of books meant for preschool and elementary children contrasted against the window out looking International where construction is endlessly ongoing.
“We’ve been around for ten years before I was introduced to him, (he was) coming in here and asking (about placing books), I guess he was going down International Boulevard and seeing all the shops, me personally I support education to the children,” said Bell.
“He came to me with books and I think as human beings, we all need (to read) especially the young.”
The man who came to Bell with the proposition of having children’s books in his business is, Denmark Gatewood, founder of Barbers, Books, and Bridges and social activist.
“In the black community, barbershops, churches, salons those are the real staples, black people are gonna be there,” Gatewood said.
“From all different backgrounds, they’re gonna be at the church or salon or in the barbershop,” said the board chair.
Barbers, Books, and Bridges are a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting children’s literature throughout Oakland that is reflective of the community; multicultural and multiethnic.
Gatewood started the organization with the help of Devin Weaver, a fellow Oakland resident with experience in various nonprofits and was initially introduced to Gatewood through Facebook.
Gatewood said he developed the idea after several high-profile police shootings had taken place, and he saw a group online in Harlem that was distributing children’s books in barbershops and other cultural hubs.
“I have a godson and he was four years old and I love him, very much and there were events that were going on around America, with Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice.
“Those events impacted me; you would see people talking about how these kids had no guidance so that was the reason why they were involved in these events and if somebody would’ve just stepped in and taught them… pretty much blaming the victim and so I felt a certain way about that,” Gatewood said.
Gatewood felt compelled to start the organization in order to improve literacy for black and brown in his own community.
Following his meeting with Weaver, who serves as the secretary for the nonprofit, Gatewood said in researching literary rates for people of color, he found that young black boys had literacy comprehension below that of other students.
“Why is that? Why is there a literacy problem, in researching more of it, I found that a lot of these kids lost interest in reading, very early because the books they were reading had no (representation).
“They just couldn’t relate to the books that they were reading. The characters didn’t look like them, it didn’t sound like them, wasn’t from the neighborhood they were, the stories weren’t relatable,” Gatewood said.
Weaver said this is a problem right now where young black boys are not being exposed in developmental years to books that would be a lot healthier for them to read and really enrich their experience.
If they can focus on solving that particular problem and including other communities by having a broader dialogue “if we keep that as a focal area, I think we get a lot more done,” he said.
“The word we use a lot is authenticity. What we have talked about as an organization, as our value set, is that the literature we’re endorsing – we’re trying to like expose people to and read as a community to come together around – is authentic stories,” Weaver said.
Gatewood visited and has set up book baskets in 15 barbershops throughout East Oakland on International, MacArthur Boulevard, Fruitvale Avenue, High Street, and some close to Lake Merritt.
Gatewood and BBB in total have donated hundreds of books throughout their course of activity.
In researching children’s books and the ethnic identity behind them in the Oakland community, both Gatewood and Weaver discovered many of the books they were coming across were not written from a perspective that is authentic.
“Who are the authors, where are they from, (we) started asking more questions at book clubs, festivals, the more questions we asked about the books we were reading, the books we read, the more questions we had about them.
“Where did they come from?
“These children stories didn’t feel like they came from the community, you could feel it, something’s off because looking through it a little more we saw that these authors weren’t from the community as well,” Gatewood said.
“We didn’t think that was cool.”
Gatewood added, “I’m not saying that all authors are gonna be African, black, indigenous, but there these children out there where they are intentionally seeking them out, we want to make sure that we get their work out there as artists, as authors, as publishers.”
Weaver said, “Denmark’s talking about the level of cultural appropriation that goes on in children’s literature and it’s massive. We broke down the statistics on it. If you’re of native or indigenous identity, two-thirds of all the literature that is produced about your community is not from your community.”
I think there’s a lot of stories that whiteness can tell about what its intersection with black and brown people, but they need to be authentic stories, Weaver said.
“Our focus is to pick books that the community believes are beneficial for their children and the children they mentor or teach. Create access to better literature,” Weaver said.
During a visit at Pepper Cuts, April Spruell was waiting for her son Messiah to get a haircut and decided to pick up some books from baskets and read them to him.
When asked by a student journalist, the East Oakland resident said, “(I) picked them up for my son, the books look cultured and it seems like a good idea to read it as I wait.”
“The display setup is inviting.”
Weaver said, “There’s another layer to this, something we talked about at the museum presentation, there is a lot of cultural appropriation that happens in multicultural literature because a lot of white folks make books about black and brown children and then sell it like its coming from the community.”
The presentation was at the African American Museum and Library (AAMLO) during a February event where Gatewood, Weaver, and others presented their books and organization to the public.
“There’s a lot of these children’s books that aren’t written by people that look like us, it’s a potentially booming business, right? A lot of our stories are being appropriated, written by folks who don’t know anything about our culture,” said Gatewood.
Gatewood said, “What they’ll do is write a story, then they’ll just put some brown or black characters on it and then just call it a children’s book of color.”
“There are two kinds of different ways to think about the way we like distributing literature, one is we’re trying to create these hubs or places we can put libraries where people can just take a book out, read it while they’re there, put the book back and share books,” said Weaver.
He also said, “For us we’re not a book retailer or this huge archive of books, we’re not a huge library of books, so what we wanna do is use a small amount of resources to give many children as much possible access to books, places where hundreds of children funnel through and when they’re there they can access books.”
Weaver said BBB hopes to have a lasting kind of place where there’s culturally relevant books.
The festivals are a good way to tell people about the aspirations we have to create strong library locations, we’re trying to create 20 mini-libraries right now, Weaver said.
Weaver also said that BBB encourages people to donate books that they think are relevant, if it’s substantiated and people like it, then BBB can always look for donations to support them to get it out in the community.
“We think of it as a healthy cycle. We want to highlight local authors because there is a ton of local fantastic authors of color in Oakland,” said Weaver.
Gatewood emphasizes promoting local authors and he and Weaver try to reach out to authors who they feel would be a good fit.
“They live here and tell our children’s stories, so it’d be very responsible for us to help them out,” said Gatewood. “Get their books read, get their books in the community, in the schools.”
He said in talking to the community, Gatewood thinks it’s only responsible for him to get back and one of the ways of giving back is through Oakland; Oakland authors, publishers, distributors of children’s books for African and black children.
“I hope that that interest is cultivated, I also hope to help those authors, those black, African, brown, Latino, Asian authors who write these stories, write our stories,” Gatewood said.
One of those authors is Oakland educator Melissa Reyes, who wrote “I Am Sausal Creek” and is currently featured on their website.
“I really liked what I was reading in terms of their mission and what they’re trying to do. Of course, it was also a good opportunity for me to have another platform for folks to find out more about my book,” Reyes said.
Reyes said, “It’s in line with what I value even as an author and part of the reason why I wanted to publish a book at all for myself, which is that there’s a lot of voices and life experiences that have been left out of that (publishing) industry.”
What that means is young kids are growing up without seeing images of themselves reflected in books that they’re reading. Learning about cultural values that may be different than what is mainstream here in the United States it is important. More diverse and by diverse, what is outside of the norm, Reyes said.
“More people with more diverse experiences, folks of color, queer people, immigrants, working-class folks have the opportunity to tell their stories in their own voices, have the opportunity to have themselves reflected and see themselves reflected in books and stories and in media.”
Gatewood said, “The authors and artists who tell our stories in the community, help to educate our kids and cultivate their imaginations, cultivate their community and if there is any money spent on these books, it goes right back to the authors in the community so it’s kind of like recycling of the money.”
Reyes also said, “Part of what could happen is that there are certain households that are literacy rich for different reasons because it’s like family members’ education, because of access to resources and the ability have a house full of books.
“There’s a whole range of different reasons, certain houses tend to be more print rich than others. There can at times be certain cultures around spaces that may feel more or less welcoming to people to come into, so I think the idea of bringing books into spaces where folks are at and creating a culture of literacy in those spaces is great, it’s brilliant,” she said.
BBB accepts donated books and aside from holding book clubs where parents and children can come together and read, Gatewood and Weaver table at events to spread their literacy goals.
One such event was an Earth Day event held at Oakland Civic Center on April 19, where several tables were setup to supplement the outdoor festivities.
During the event, at least 40 books were sold and Gatewood and Weaver spoke to several passersby about their organization.
Brittany Waldon, an Oakland resident saw the tabling and was intrigued by the books they had since she reads to her son often.
“It’s very fundamental and I support the youth and I like the message the group is sending. They have book clubs, books for kids of all ages in different varieties, books that kids can relate to, learn and grow from it so like I’m down. 100 percent with their movement,” Waldon said.
Gatewood said, “The bridge is something to help these young black African children, when a child reads a book and can relate to the book because the narrative is one that is grounded in his or her experience, photos look like him, there’s a connection there.”
Weaver said, “I think the ecosystem too, is a bridge, bring the author in a space where they can talk to parents, bring books into barbershops, put books in places where they’re not typically thought of as belonging.”
“Bridging these desperate ideas of community education (that) are somehow separate in the Americana we have created, collectively,” Weaver said.
“There’s an interest in looking beyond their current situation, so that would be the bridge, these books help them to (escape) their current situation, as far as physically, as far as mentally, (build) confidence, imagination and for me to go beyond barbershops, we want to do it, where it’s a bridge to elsewhere, to festivals, other cultural hubs, schools,” Gatewood said.
Bell said, “With that man thinking the way he’s thinking for us to be here, it’s a blessing whether one, two, or two thousand (books).”