“Let’s see if we can find five books that represent the type of work that you’re doing and represent you as a little Black boy,” she told him. “And let’s see how long it takes us, because we want people to be able to find your books."
Two and a half hours later, they found five books — “literally going on a scavenger hunt in the children’s section,” she said.
As Langston, now 9, said in a recent interview, he was looking for books that depicted “how brilliant, handsome, smart and how amazing we [Black boys] are. … In the picture quality, I’m not looking for things that show us with big lips, big bodies, big noses. I’m looking for things that actually represent us, show who we actually are. I’m a brilliant, handsome, intelligent Black boy, just like my brother.” For good measure, he repeated, “And handsome.”
His 4-year-old brother, Emerson — named for the transcendentalist writer, just as Langston was named for the Harlem Renaissance poet — chattered in the background.
Immediately after that disappointing shopping trip, Scott-Miller and her husband, Duane Miller, brainstormed how to create a different kind of bookstore, one where Black families wouldn’t have to search so hard to find books where Black children were the heroes of the stories.
They didn’t have money for a brick-and-mortar store, no investors and, Scott-Miller said: “No one is going to stand behind the concept. So it’s something we’re going to have to do from the trunk of our car.” With the family coffers running low and rent worries, the couple took their last $250 and bought a small stash of discounted books that they sold at a profit.
Langston’s ambitions, and the need they exposed, had inspired a family business.
Liberation Station, the independent pop-up bookstore the couple founded a year ago, sells only children’s literature in which Black children are the main characters.
Before the pandemic, it was a mobile bookseller, setting up shop around central North Carolina in places such as a boutique hotel lobby or an art gallery. Now it sells a curated selection of about 500 books online and has a warehouse with about 5,000 volumes.
Business is booming. Liberation Station grossed about $15,000 in the first year but earned $12,000 in two weeks in June. The coronavirus restrictions that closed libraries and shut down story times created a surge in the demand for book purchases that could be delivered. On top of that, the May killing of George Floyd and White Americans’ resulting desire to read about racial injustice swelled the New York Times bestseller list with titles by Black authors, taking all top 10 spots for the first time in the list’s history.
“It’s so bittersweet,” Scott-Miller said of the increased sales. “I want to be happy and joyful and excited. But it’s really hard to be happy, because [Floyd’s killing] shouldn’t have happened. It shouldn’t have had to happen for us to have mattered so much. Black bookstores should be a resource, period, for all communities.”
Scholars and activists have long noted that literature can be a social force — to normalize little-told stories about Black life and to help Black children form their identities.
“Children must be exposed to diverse literature as early and as often as possible,” said Nicole Johnson, executive director of the nonprofit group We Need Diverse Books, which pushes publishers to release more multicultural books for young people. “Black children need to be given the opportunity and access to books with characters that look like them.”
Rudine Sims Bishop wrote about books being a mirror, Johnson said, referring to the influential children’s-literature scholar’s essay “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” “And we should present Black children with mirrors — characters who are whole, have fun and joy, and [help them] learn their history.”
The University of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center analyzed about 3,100 children’s books published in 2018 and found that White characters were featured in half of the books. Books with animal characters were the second-most common, clocking in at 27 percent, and books featuring Black protagonists came in third at 10 percent of the total. Works with Latinx, Asian American and Indigenous characters trailed even further behind, the study said, with American Indians making up 1 percent of characters.
Next year, Liberation Station plans to expand to include books about other children of color, in addition to setting up more public reading stations stocked with its diverse books, like a few they have installed in public places around the city of Durham, N.C.
The Millers do not need the statistics to know that there is a representation problem particularly for Black children in literature, even as the number of books featuring Black children have jumped since Scott-Miller read Virginia Hamilton’s classic folk-tale collection “The People Could Fly,” first released in 1985.
Scott-Miller isn’t curating just any books with Black children: She avoids titles that confine Black history to the oversimplified Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr. narratives, that present sports as the province of Black boys or that exaggerate or denigrate Black physical features in ways that echo Sambo stories, as well as those ever-popular people-as-animals stories.
Kesha Lee, former director of the Hurston/Wright Foundation, which promotes greater Black representation in publishing, calls for diversity of subjects within books about and for Black children. She founded #Ward8Reads, a nonprofit that establishes community libraries in barbershops, community centers and Metro stations in one of D.C.’s predominantly Black “book deserts.”
“Publishers and decision-makers are overwhelmingly White — and a lot of the books are about Black history or cultural elements that adults want their kids to know about,” Lee said. “Those are important, but what about the books with little Black kids riding skateboards and talking about space aliens? Where are the Black girl characters who are really into anime and decide to travel to Japan?”
“Those books aren’t getting greenlighted,” Lee said. “We need as many access points to get books and also books that show Black children possibilities. And likewise for children who are not people of color, because we need not to raise racist children.”
On a sunny day last November, parents and children crowded the lobby of the Durham Hotel to see Liberation Station’s offerings. Duane — whom Scott-Miller calls Liberation Station’s “energy conductor” — kept a watchful eye on their sons, circulated quietly and straightened tables laden with color-drenched books. Among the selections were Siman Nuurali’s “Sadiq and the Green Thumbs,” a serial novel about a Somali American boy who discovers a new side to his Koranic schoolteacher through gardening; “Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop,” a fictionalized childhood account of the 1968 strike by sanitation workers; and “Ban This Book,” about a fourth-grader’s crusade to get her favorite book back on her school library’s shelves.
That pop-up story time was a turning point. Scott-Miller could hardly take a breath with all the parents crowding around and asking for her recommendations. Many of those parents were White, shopping for multicultural books for their children. The hotel had thought maybe 20 sets of parents and children might attend the first-time event, but more than 100 showed up.
Open for just more than a year, Liberation Station has gained the attention of cultural institutions. Scott-Miller had long wanted to partner with the North Carolina Museum of Art. This year, the Raleigh museum reached out and held a virtual story time for Juneteenth in one of its galleries.
“As Duane said so eloquently,” Scott-Miller said, “there’s a difference between being a participant and being a partner. Last year, I would have been a participant.”
That’s when the family was living off Duane’s military-disability check. After subtracting rent, they had only about $500 per month to pay other expenses. They could not afford gas to drive the children to school, a factor in their switch to home schooling. They stretched their food stamps, going to a farmers market that would double their benefits. Those experiences taught them a minimalism that they refused to see as deprivation. Instead, the time defined what a “full sustainable life” looked like for their household — including “purging the ideology of wanting more” material things — and it made way for the full-family creativity to come, Scott-Miller said.
Starting the business has been a sacrifice and a commitment. Before the pandemic made it too risky, the family delivered books in person, wrapped in the Pan-African tricolor of red, green and black, to porches and mailboxes. Duane said the time spent together “delivering books and finding a way to make it a family event, sourcing books, reading books, all of us reading them,” has meant a lot to them.
Among other things, Duane and Victoria get their sons’ opinions, “so it’s not just an adult perspective," Duane said. "But it’s a lot of work that doesn’t seem like work, because we’re conversing back and forth.”
And Langston, still reading and writing, has gotten a gig. The state art museum asked him to join his mom for further events and deliver his own commentary about the books she reads for story times.
He answered with two questions: “Will I have a contract as well? And will I be paid for my time?”
Cynthia Greenlee, PhD, is a North Carolina-based independent historian, writer and deputy editor at Colorlines.