In 1969, my parents purchased a set of World Book encyclopedias that included a dictionary and “year in review.”
It wasn’t just like the world wide web, it was the world wide web, and for a little Black boy growing up in a working-class home, it revealed a world I didn’t even know existed. I spent hours poring over subjects—sports mostly, at first, especially entries about the Black athletes who boycotted the 1968 Olympics. Some days one of my buddies would come over and we would spend the afternoon looking at the colorful pictures of snakes in the S encyclopedia.
My buddy should have become a herpetologist, someone whose discoveries led to a scientific breakthrough. Instead, he went to prison before we graduated high school.
I thought again about how a young person can travel the world by opening a book and reading—and about my buddy, whose life was destroyed by prison—after speaking with Paul Scott last month.
For nearly two decades Scott has posted up on Sunday afternoons along a sidewalk in Durham’s West End and given away books about Black American and African history. Books are a hopeful antidote to the deadly youth gun tragedies in the community that have shattered the lives of countless families.
“Instead of doing drive-bys with guns, we’re doing drive-bys with books,” says Scott. “Instead of flooding our streets with drugs, we want to flood the streets with knowledge.”
Late September marked the annual Banned Book Week in America, and undue criticism of critical race theory notwithstanding, Scott says most books dealing with the Black experience have always been banned. But Scott began another chapter this summer: he started the Bull City Griot, a mobile bookstore that travels all over the city giving away books to young people and adults.
“I turned my car into a virtual library,” Scott told the INDY. “I go to parking lots, stores. Last weekend I was at Centerfest and the Beats n Bars hip-hop festival at American Tobacco. Sometimes I go to Northgate Park and various places all over Durham.”
One of Scott’s main posts is at Durham Marble Works in the 1500 block of Morehead Avenue in Durham’s West End; to track him down for donation or visiting purposes, his Facebook and Twitter are the best bets.
During a time when way too many young Black men are both the victims and perpetrators of gun violence, Scott says he wants to help create a culture shift.
“We want to make Black men reading books the narrative the same way that pop culture has made a Black man with a gun and his pants sagging the narrative,” he says. Recalling the era when rappers carried backpacks, Scott says he’s ready to implement “the next phase of the movement: backpack griots.”
“Let’s make it cool again to carry a backpack full of books,” he says.
Scott grew up in Halifax County and enrolled at NC Central University in 1985. After graduating, he briefly left the Bull City before returning in 1990; later, he turned to activism, thanks in no small part to frequent visits to the former Know Book Store on Fayetteville Street. It was while patronizing the Know that he found out that it had been against the law for enslaved people to learn how to read.
“You could get killed for knowing how to read,” he says. “I wanted to give Black people in my community the confidence to pick up a book. It’s like George Clinton said, ‘Think. It’s not illegal yet.’”
In 1998, Scott became an ordained Baptist minister while a member of the Gethsemane Baptist Church on South Roxboro Street. In 2002, he left the church, later founding the Black Messiah Movement, which combines Black liberation theology with community activism.
“I hit the streets and never looked back,” he says. “I always wanted to put knowledge in the streets.”
Operating a bookstore, even a mobile one that gives literature away, is a challenge. Moreover, during a period when Amazon and retail giants like Barnes & Noble are predominant across the bookselling landscape, independently owned bookstores are working extra hard just to keep the doors open.
The pandemic didn’t help. It’s doubly challenging for Black-owned bookstores. Last year, writer Alaina Lavoie, with the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books, reported that there are about 10,800 independently owned bookstores in the United States—and only 6 percent are Black-owned.
One of those outlets is the Rofhiwa Book Café in East Durham. Co-owners Naledi Yaziyo and Bev Makhubele first opened Rofhiwa’s doors on May 15 of last year.
Yaziyo told the INDY that the bookstore focuses on many of the same elements that Scott advocates for in the streets: curating local authors and Black authors, promoting other Black-owned businesses, and fostering a sense of community.
Part of how Yaziyo defines “curating” is “being active and responsive, in real-time.”
Following the excitement of pop singer Halle Bailey’s lead casting in the remake of The Little Mermaid, for example, the bookstore introduced its young patrons to images of a Black mermaid featured in Tracey Baptiste’s Rise of the Jumbies.
Soon after Scott announced his plans to start a mobile bookstore, the book donations began pouring in.
“A sister donated two large boxes of classic Black books,” he says. “More people started donating books after cleaning out their garage or cleaning out their office.”
Those classic titles include The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois, Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington, and The 1619 Project. Scott says that a retired college professor donated four bags of books, including three early editions of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.
Scott says he’s even receiving donations from out of state, including “Black baby dolls to give to the little girls” and children’s books like An African American Coloring Book for Boys: With Positive Affirmations and Nina: Jazz Legend and Civil-Rights Activist Nina Simone by Alice Brière-Haquet.
Scott says he’s always loved reading but used to be ashamed of it.
“I hid it for a lot of years,” he says, “until I came to the Know Book Store. I vowed to never let that happen to another kid, where they feel like they have to dumb down. That’s been my mantra, and I’ll live and die for that.”
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