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Austin African American Book Festival celebrates 15 years

By Sharyn Vane
Special to the American-Statesman
"Judas and the Black Messiah," starring Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield, will be discussed Saturday during the Austin African American Book Festival. The theme for this year's fest is “I Am A Revolutionary: Stories of Resistance and Resilience.”

The Austin African American Book Festival marks its 15th year Saturday with a virtual program dedicated to lessons from the past and inspiration for the future.

New York Times columnist and author Charles Blow headlines the event, centered on the theme “I Am a Revolutionary: Stories of Resistance and Resilience.”

“In our world culture, Black people have a long history of revolutionary acts. We wanted to hold our resistance and resilience up to this light and gain strength from seeing our ancestors and ourselves in this way,” explained Rosalind Oliphant Jones, the festival’s founder.

Blow will discuss his newest book, the New York Times bestseller “The Devil You Know: A Black Manifesto,” with Mark Cunningham, a writer, filmmaker and associate professor of radio, television and film at Austin Community College. Blow’s critically acclaimed 2014 memoir, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” was the basis for Terence Blanchard’s opera of the same name, which opens the Metropolitan Opera’s season this fall.

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Writer Charles Blow will discuss his best-selling book, “The Devil You Know: A Black Manifesto,” with Mark Cunningham, a writer, filmmaker and associate professor of radio, television and film at Austin Community College, on Saturday during the Austin African American Book Festival.

The festival will also feature Raphael Travis, program director at Texas State University’s school of social work and author of “The Healing Power of Hip-Hop,” discussing the recent film “Judas and the Black Messiah.” Daniel Kaluuya won an Oscar, a BAFTA and several other awards for his portrayal of Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton in the movie.

“We strive to be attuned to current events and issues important to African Americans. Both Charles Blow’s writing and (director) Shaka King’s film put aspects of the Black lived experience front and center, which, of course makes them perfectly aligned with this year's theme,” Oliphant Jones said.  

“Last year, we featured Isabel Wilkerson and her discussion of the great migration, where many Blacks migrated north in hopes of greater opportunity and freedom. This year, we follow up with Blow’s new book ‘The Devil You Know,’ which posits a reverse migration to the South to help Blacks gain political power. We hope attendees will leave with a sense of history and hope for the future.”

In past years, the festival was an in-person event at the George Washington Carver museum with popular family activities. It will remain virtual this year, but organizers wanted to add a family-themed component to its online slate, Oliphant Jones said.

The result is an opening panel of children’s book creators, including prolific poet and author Tony Medina, illustrator and author Vanessa Brantley-Newton, and Just Us publisher and co-founder Cheryl Willis Hudson. The trailblazing Hudson and her husband, Wade, established Just Us in 1988 as a place to celebrate Black children in books by Black authors, years before most publishers.

“We don’t believe it’s enough to provide children with books that feature Black characters. We must also be mindful of the messages within the work,” Oliphant Jones said.

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At a milestone juncture, festival organizers are also mindful of the future.

“Over the years, we have expanded our scope to include pop culture discussions, a platform for new and emerging authors, and a vendor marketplace. We continue to be encouraged by the way our children’s events have grown over the last few years,” Oliphant Jones said.

“We’ve tried to keep things simple, relevant and powerful. Our committee is constantly learning, collaborating and listening. 

“We have many plans for the future, but one hope is that we can create systems of longevity because we want the Austin African American Book Festival to last beyond us.”

The 15th annual Austin African American Book Festival

The virtual festival runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. The event is free, but advance registration is required at aaabookfest.org, where you can also find the full schedule.