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All agree that slavery, forced segregation, and urban renewal have left significant scars. "We as a people have been deprived of our culture. We reflect it but we don't understand it," says Earl Wells, a retired associate superintendent of Dade County Schools. Fourteen years ago Wells and his wife Eursla, a retired junior-high-school principal, opened Afro In Books & Things at 5575 NW Seventh Avenue in Liberty City. The store's shelves are lined with hardcover and paperback titles by Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, and Nikki Giovanni. The Wellses also carry an extensive selection of biographies and other nonfiction, as well as artworks, jewelry, and clothing imported from Africa.
"It's the only bookstore that has a very high level of African-American books," says the NAACP's Johnnie McMillian, suggesting that I go see for myself. "If they don't have a particular book, they have access to it. Contrary to what you might read or hear about us, many of us are readers, so we have a chance to meet here and share ideas on new readings."
This past year McMillian's organization published a study of state-sanctioned history books used in Dade County classrooms. The study, performed in conjunction with the University of Miami, illuminated the abysmal manner in which white authors tend to treat black issues. "In some instances, the very popular people were left out or barely mentioned," McMillian recalls. "For example, they didn't mention that Martin Luther King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and that it's still around." The NAACP graded the books on a scale from zero to 100, with 70 representing a passing grade. "None of them passed," McMillian says. "The highest grade was 46."
Afro In Books proprietor Wells, who estimates that about fifteen percent of his customers are whites, believes that the white-dominated publishing industry places little importance on accurately depicting the black experience. "Unless a book touches their fancy, they may or may not publish it," he says. "Unfortunately, most of the textbooks are written by European-Americans who tend to exclude the history of African-Americans or Africans in general. That's one of the reasons we exist." To compensate, Wells says, he relies on black publishing houses, such as New Jersey's Africa World Press and Chicago's Third World Press.
Not far from Wells's bookstore, on the fringes of one of Liberty City's crime-ridden housing projects, the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, 6161 NW 22nd Avenue, offers African-based dance, art, theater, and music programs to young blacks. The county-funded center, which opened in 1975, is home to many local groups, including Theater Afro Arts, one of the oldest black theater groups in the Southeast. "Along with economic depression, there's other deprivation taking place in this area," says center director Marshall L. Davis. "There are no movie theaters, for example, few restaurants, few clubs. One of the reasons they built this facility is because the area is so deprived. It's the center that gives people hope and some reason to come out of the situation they're in."
Davis's son Marshall Jr., who studied tap dancing at the center, was named 1991's top teen dance champion on Star Search, the national talent competition hosted by Ed McMahon. "The art that is truly American - jazz, tap dance - came from the African-American community," says Davis. "If you cut off education, interaction, you stop growing and you become like a stagnant pool. We don't have to assimilate. What we're offering is different. We're developing our own identity and opening the doors for others to appreciate."
Andre Williams is waiting for me outside Mount Hermon African Methodist Episcopal Church in Opa-locka, the white steeple rising above him like the mast of a tall ship. He leads me out of the scorching midmorning sun to the alcove of the church, where an usher opens the wooden doors for us. The ®MDNM¯ hushed voices of a hymn wash over us like an airy baptism. As Rev. Conrad Jenkins steps to the dais, the choir's soft singing fades. "I have the honor of introducing our speaker," Jenkins says brightly. "He was born in the 1700s. He fought in the War of 1812." He steps back from the pulpit, presses a legal pad to his nose. "Oh, wrong notes!" he exclaims.
Chuckles rise from the congregation. This Sunday's speaker is C. Ellis Jenkins, Conrad's father. "That's what you get for letting your son introduce you," says Pastor Jenkins, eliciting another round of laughter from the assembled worshipers. He makes use of the humorous moment to affirm that here there's room for all expression. "We can't shout for joy in our downtown offices. We can come here and shout `Hallelujah!'" he says. Soon Jenkins will trade in the light cheer for a mood of more immediate urgency. "We can't let the drug dealers take over," he cries, framed by the "Lord is Redeemer" banners that adorn the dais. "If we do, we might as well go to heaven right now."
The pastor's words are met with nods from his parishioners, including Georgia Ayres, the softspoken founder of The Alternative Program Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps released convicts find jobs and education. Ayres, a member of Jenkins's congregation and choir since 1978, calls herself "just a little social worker" whose faith carries her through her work with troubled young men and women. "I've never strayed from what I was taught," she says. "I believe if you treat people the way you want to be treated, then good will come back to you."