Fieldtripping: Baltimore Bookfest-ing

Photo by Kate Drabinski

It’s Book Festival time of year. I love this event. I’m a reader, though less so than I was before The Internet taught me to stop reading and start scrolling through the same feeds almost compulsively for hours upon hours rather than picking up a book and getting into it. But that’s enough about me—this is about the book festival, not me.

But it’s also about me. I got to be on a panel this year, along with other contributors to the new book, “Baltimore Revisited: Stories of Inequality and Resistance in a U.S. City.” I co-edited this volume with Nicole King and Josh Davis. We were in the Radical Book Fair tent, sponsored by Red Emma’s, and it all felt oh so good, a dream almost. I’ve been a reader and writer for as long as I can remember, and we worked on that damn book for literally years to see it come to fruition. And here we were, talking about our work, about history, and about how it can help us think differently about how Baltimore came to look as it does, and how it could look differently.

I specifically talked about a piece I wrote with Louise Parker Kelley. I sat down with her for dinner many moons ago to ask her to tell me All Her Stories about being an organizer in the LGBTQ+ community in the 1970s and 1980s in Baltimore. It’s a history that isn’t told enough, and it was a gift to not only hear her stories, but write them down. In a book! That people will be able to read forever! What I liked about doing this project is that we wrote down not just the facts—that Baltimore passed the Gay Rights Ordinance in 1988 or that the first Pride was held along 31st Street in the early ’70s. I liked hearing the stories about sitting on the porch on Abell Avenue on weekend mornings and watching women do the walk of pride from one house to another (according to Kelley, there were some swingers on the block). I liked hearing about the drama that has been a part of every lesbian community I’ve ever been a part of. Turns out, it’s my birthright. I wanted to hear the stories of love as an organizing strategy, and how building community is itself political work, especially when you’re building that community in a world that doesn’t want you to survive. These are the stories we are in danger of losing if we don’t write them down right now.

These were my stories at the book festival, but there were so, so many others, all of them just as urgent. My panel featured Nicole King, challenging who has a right to the city. Nicole Fabricant talked about youth activists and environmental justice in South Baltimore, and the importance of academic work that doesn’t extract from communities, but redistributes resources and power to them. Michael Casiano told the important history of a war on drugs in Baltimore that started not in the 1980s, but long before. Ashley Minner told us about the history of the Lumbee in Baltimore, and what it’s like to be from and of Baltimore when the city sometimes looks at you like you don’t belong; the psychic cost of answering over and over again, “What are you?” is heavy.

Erica Armstrong Dunbar, author of “She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman,” preceded us on stage. She reminded us that there is more to learn about Tubman’s story than a brief hagiography in a history book, and that it matters who tells her story. She is the first African American to write a biography of Tubman, and that matters. You’ve got to read and listen to understand why.

Our panel was followed by Ibram X. Kendi, talking about his book, “How to Be an Antiracist,” in conversation with Karsonya Wise Whitehead. Whitehead hosts “Today with Dr. Kaye” on WEAA, writes a regular column for the Afro, and is an award winning author in her own right. Recently named to Essence Magazine’s 2019 Woke 100 list, Whitehead is a vital voice in Baltimore, and across the nation.

And these were just a few of the panels at this year’s Radical Book Pavillion. What an embarrassment of riches we have in this city. So many people are doing so much important work. Events like the book festival remind me how lucky we are to call this city home, to be doing the work of world-ing together. Thank you, Baltimore.

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