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In November of 2017, I interviewed Mr. Richard Stewart, owner and operator of Petersburg Virginia’s Pocahontas Island Black History Museum. During that time, he asked had I heard of neighboring cultural site, “Nat Turner Land”. I hadn’t. A couple of days after that interview, while spending time with one of my mentors in D.C., he shared that he and a large group of people had just gotten back from visiting “Nat Turner Land”. I knew it was a must for me to place the site on my “Places to Document” list.
In January of this year, as I was traveling from Atlanta for a 3-month stay in D.C., I stopped for an overnight rest in Virginia. The next morning, I looked up “Nat Turner Land” and made an impromptu phone call, to see if I could stop in for a visit and a brief recorded Q&A. To my surprise the site’s founder, Baba H. Khalif Khalifah, said yes and we coordinated a good time for me to stop by. I went expecting to document the history of the landscape. That did not happen. Instead, left having documented something equally as valuable.
My interview with H. Khalif Khalifa founder of United Brothers Communications Systems (UBCS) introduced me to the inner workings of book publishing and distribution. This resulted in over an hour of documented recordings, which can be viewed in the link above. The interview is raw and unedited. Still, it is a strong resource. Viewers will one, learn just how book publishing and distribution works and cases how it does not work. Secondly, there is an opportunity for enterprising individuals to learn about the ecosystem created by a collective of entrepreneurs, working the streets of New York, the books they sold and what became of their lives after that period in time.
H. Khalif Khalifa had a vision to create a consolidated publishing/distribution house, seeking to establish partnerships with black people “with means”. At first, no one signed on to support him. In time, a gentleman by the name of “Luther” of New York, reached out and offered to act as UBCS’s distributor. Luther had no interest in identifying literary works for print, writing or printing. He simply wanted to create channels of distribution. Khalifa on the other hand was interested in such work and had been doing so even before his dealings with Luther. So, once the two started working together that is what Khalifa continued to do.
According to Khalifa, Luther “developed a means to get them [self-published books] distributed…what he did was set up vending tables on the street, throughout New York City.” Mr. Khalifa said his career has proven that if you can get Black Literature to the marketplace, Black people and others bought it. This added value to the Black community because white bookstore owners would often times purchase a single order of Black literature, sell it, and not restock. This became a disadvantage to the Black community because they were unable to get their hands on previously written materials such as Carter G. Woodson’s “The Mis-Education of the Negro” in addition to the more recent titles being written at that time.
Luther’s business model can be described as having vendors come to him daily, to get a selection of books on consignment. These vendors were not required to pay any upfront costs. Vendors would return the next day, satisfy related costs from the day prior, then get another order of books to sell. He did the same for black bookstores, “he told bookstores if they would give the books shelf space, he would supply the books.” No down payment or upfront costs needed. Khalifa expressed his reservations about this to Luther. Stating it that “was a bad business move.” Khalifa shared that he had seen where Black bookstores would sell books, profit, then restock by going to a competitor. [Sidenote: I wish I would have asked why they would have went to a competitor. Was it pricing? Also, did they at least satisfy any outstanding payments with Luther before doing so?] Yet, Luther’s vision actually worked for a long period of time.
It wasn’t until Luther left New York to spearhead an operation in Chicago, leaving the New York business in the care of his brother, that the NY distribution operation began to fail. Khalifa shared that Luther did not take his advice when he suggested that Luther purchase a brownstone in New York to establish his own brick and mortar. Instead, Luther’s brother took the operation to another side of town, resulting in $14,000 a month in overhead costs, eventually leading to the collapse of the New York distribution business. Luther was able to continue operating in Chicago.
The Nat Turner Library which is located in Dreweryville, VA has served as a repository of information for the liberation of Black people. Khalifa says he doesn’t know anyone who sells more books about Nat Turner than him. He has written three, himself. He also sells books written about Nat Turner by other people. After reading William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond which was a response to Syron’s The Confession of Nat Turner, Khalifa affirmed two things. One, he would someday meet John Henrik Clark who had edited William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, he also committed his life as a Master Printer, to the sole production of Black literature. He achieved both.
“Nat Turner Land” will celebrate its anniversary on April 28th, 2018. Festivities are planned. I encourage you to visit. For whatever reason, Mr. Khalifa did not share much about the historical significance of his property with me the day I met with him. Nor, did he go into detail about the tours and festivities that take place there Year after Year. Honestly, I don’t think I even realized the value and depth of our conversation until spending time alone with the recorded materials. Nat Turner Library and the story of Baba H. Khalif Khalifah drips black, Red, and green. Each droplet prepared to quench the thirst of the minds and hearts of those looking to learn more about Black Liberation.
My goal is to revisit “Nat Turner Land” whose actually name is Khalifah Kujichagulia Village to gather details about its history and public programming, within the year.