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Wednesday, August 4, 2021

‘Ujamaa is a love offering to the community’: Bookstore provides place for the Black community

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As you walk into the Ujamaa Community Bookstore, a feeling of warmth and positivity overwhelms you. If it is a Monday or Thursday around 3 p.m., you will see former Recorder publisher Eunice Trotter leading her “Tracing Family Roots” workshop to help people learn more about their ancestors.

“We are Black history,” Trotter said, which is why she runs the workshop.

The bookstore opened June 19 and is a part of Flanner House, a 123-year-old nonprofit that empowers the community toward self-sufficiency by providing educational, social and economic resources.

“Piece by piece we will continue to support the neighborhood and the community by not just making those things available but giving it to them in a way that honors and values the Blackness of who they are,” Brandon Cosby, CEO of Flanner House, said. “Ujamaa is a love offering to the community.”

The name Ujamaa is a Swahili word meaning brotherhood, extended family, and shared and cooperative economics.

“What if you could have a bookstore that was focused on us, but then every other object that was in that store was made by Black hands?” asked Cosby. That question led to what is now the Ujamaa Community Bookstore.

Cosby wanted to partner with another nonprofit to create the bookstore, but he later learned that organization moved elsewhere. The experience didn’t stop Cosby. He said “forget it, we’ll do it ourselves” and created Ujamaa a year later in the space of a former Indianapolis Public Library branch. 

“Everything in here, to the tune of around 85%, is from Black makers,” said Rohini Townsend, manager of the bookstore, which sells books and other products.

“Probably around half of that is from Black local makers.” 

Townsend said she and the staff only had six days to put everything together before the store’s grand opening.

Images of historical events and figures — designed by Chaya Peterson — such as Harriet Tubman, Madam C.J. Walker, “Whipped Peter” and the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith stand out along the back wall of the bookstore to show both the triumphs and hardships of the Black experience. 

Cosby said it is amazing to watch people respond to the wall. 

He recalled the day of the bookstore’s grand opening where Peterson met the descendants of one of the two men lynched in Marion in 1930.

“To get to watch them have a moment, I get chills talking about it,” Cosby said. “This very ugly and dark piece of history still found its way to bring two people together.”

Keshia McEntire, one of the authors of “Girls of Might and Magic: An Anthology by Diverse Books with Magic,” said this was the first time she has seen her book on the shelf of a bookstore. 

McEntire said she is pleased the bookstore has a section dedicated to local Indiana authors because it gives them a platform to have their work seen. 

Megan Thomas, author of the children’s book “My Dad,” said it was surreal to have the opportunity to put her own books on a shelf.

“I put my products where I wanted them to go,” Thomas said. “It all hit me at once. I’m surprised I didn’t start crying.”

The bookstore features various events, free programming such as instrument lessons, acting classes and roller-skating lessons throughout the year and will have open mic night for all ages every third Friday of the month starting Aug. 20.

“I want people to walk in and feel like this is their bookstore,” Townsend said. “I wanted the entire diaspora represented. That meant belief systems. That meant books. That meant art. It means everything.”

Contact staff writer Terrence Lambert at 317-924-5243. Follow him on Twitter @_TerrenceL_. 

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