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What Gives With The Covenant With Black America?

What Gives With The Covenant With Black America?

By Deborah Mathis

Not only was the book nowhere to be found at a major bookstore in New Orleans — which has long carried a “Chocolate City” designation — but the clerk had never even heard of it.

The bookseller’s never having heard of The Covenant With Black America is troubling and, perhaps, telling.

This, after all, is no run-of-the-mill book. In late April, The Covenant hit No. 1 on The New York Times’ bestseller list of nonfiction paperbacks, the first nonfiction book by a Black publisher ever to claim that coveted spot.

No one may have been more surprised by the book’s surging popularity than its publisher, the Black-owned Third World Press. The nearly 40-year-old independent company features many notable Black authors, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez. But it was Tavis Smiley, the indefatigable all-media impresario, who brought Third World into the view of the masses.

Smiley got prominent Black thinkers to write essays and how-to’s on a variety of topics, then assembled them to create The Covenant, a manifesto and guide to overturning historical disparities. Even the retail price of the book, released in February, seemed to herald a new attitude. In a world where a $6 latte is the norm, there is something about paying $12 for a brand new best seller that feels like “keeping it real.”

If mainstream publishing was caught off-guard by The Covenant’s ascent, it will not be the first time Black readers have shaken the conventional wisdom. Years ago, works by E. Lynn Harris, Terry McMillan and Walter Moseley helped prove that Blacks were not only eager to read but also willing to buy.

And yet, mainstreamers have a lot to learn and they would be wise to learn the power of word-of-mouth marketing in Black and Latino communities. Personal commendations work wonders, but too often so-called “Black books” are pulled from shelves before the buzz grows loud enough to be noticed.

But why all the buzz about The Covenant? Might it be that Black Americans are ready to move past merely pinpointing problems and now crave practical answers?

Whether readers believe the book was worth even its modest price may well depend on how they’ve dealt with “the struggle” till now. Passive types may find it energizing and full of empowerment points, but long-time strivers may be rather disappointed. The advice contained in the book — saving, investing, maximizing educational opportunities etc. — is unoriginal, although it doesn’t hurt to see the book’s recapitulated statistics again as they tend to reinvigorate the resolve to close the Black-White gaps. Besides, chasing the American dream is a lot like getting physically fit; it usually requires sticking to the tried and true. 

In short, The Covenant may not spark epiphanies from sea to shining sea, but for many it may be just the kick in the pants they need.  

“This has been tried before and it would not have happened without two things,” says Dr. Ronald Walters, Distinguished Leadership Scholar and director of the University of Maryland African American Leadership Institute and Scholar Practitioner Program. “The first is the sense of siege that Black people feel and their search for a vehicle to begin to fight back.”

Walters says, notwithstanding previous efforts at mobilizing a change strategy for Black America, The Covenant resonates because “this appears to be a time for such ‘agenda politics’ as we point toward the opportunities provided by the 2006 elections and beyond.”

According to Walters, Smiley’s popularity and communication skills helped drive the book to the top. Walters says it may “signal the arrival of communicators as people with serious impact on Black American politics.”

Smiley is certainly aware of his fame and influence, and he has taken pains to protect his credibility in the wake of The Covenant’s runaway success. He has given all proceeds from the book to Third World Press.

“I didn’t want there to be a dialogue about whether Tavis Smiley was enriching himself off the book, because it’s not about me,” he says.

“The fact that Black people have [made The Covenant No. 1] says to me that they are hungry. They are thirsty,” Smiley says. “A lot of that has to do with the fact that we live in a post-Hurricane Katrina world.

That hurricane, and the aftermath, and the government’s disrespect and disenfranchisement of those people in New Orleans … everyone saw that as a major diss by the government of these people. People are like, ‘You know what? This can never happen again and whatever we’ve gotta do, we’re hard at work.’”

Lest one is tempted to write off The Covenant’s success as a fluke, consider that, also in April, another book by a Black author debuted at No. 1 on both the USA Today and The New York Times’ bestseller lists for hardcover nonfiction: Don’t Make A Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea’s Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life by Tyler Perry. The book imparts advice on love, sex and living, albeit in
the voice of Perry’s alter ego, the grandmotherly, wisecracking, gun-toting Madea Simmons. Publishers Weekly describes the effect as “a surprisingly fresh compilation of homespun advice.”

If past is prologue, these successes bode well for prospective Black authors, editors and publishers. The next Black gold rush in the literary world may be in the offing.

But the larger community will not only be watching how The Covenant sells; it will want to know if it works.

Deborah Mathis is a nationally syndicated columnist and former White House correspondent for Gannett News Service.

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