“If We Don’t Accept That Our Culture Matters, Then No One Else Will”

DC's Sankofa bookstore has been a crucial hub for the African-American community for 20 years.
“If We Don’t Accept That Our Culture Matters, Then No One Else Will”
Sankofa co-owner Shirikiana Gerima. Photograph by Evy Mages.

For the last 20 years, Sankofa Video, Books & Cafe has been a crucial hub for African-American culture in DC. Located on Georgia Avenue near Howard University, it began as a film-production company, but in 1997 owners Haile and Shirikiana Gerima decided to open a shop, and the business took off. Today Sankofa is only growing in prominence—it recently hosted a high-profile event for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s latest book at Metropolitan AME Church. As Sankofa celebrates its 20th anniversary, we talked to Shirikiana about the state of the store.

Owning a Black Bookstore in DC

“Well, I’ve never owned a white bookstore. I don’t know what it feels like to get support from the city. I don’t know what it’s like to be able to get loans. I don’t know what it’s like for the POTUS to come to your store. These things happen in DC to other stores. The rewards we get from being here we get from our customers. We know people can come and get an experience that gives them a sense of respect.”

The Ongoing Struggle

“Racism in America is always threatening. That has a lot to do with why we’re here in the first place. The store is built to make sure you’re always aware that you have to be vigilant. The thinkers on our shelves have lived through a harsher era of racism than any of us, and some of us have lived through pretty harsh phases. It may also help people see that we’re going to get through the next 20 years. Things may be hitting the fan now, but look at all these people who were there when it hit the fan for real. You can resist all day long, but you have to have something to fight for—you’ve got to be able to build. This place is our little liberated territory. We hope it inspires people.”

Advice for Entrepreneurs

“Someone told me she wanted to start a Latino bookstore but she wasn’t sure whether to instead start a bookstore with literature for everybody. I told her to go for the Latino bookstore. If that’s what you love, feel confident in who you are and take a chance. Because of the power of American culture, we are quick to think that our culture is not on the scale—it doesn’t count. If we don’t accept that our culture matters, then no one else will. If [people of color] think of our culture as second best or third best, they’re denying themselves the opportunity to be immersed in one of the greatest things they have to offer. We all get cheated.”

This article appears in the November 2017 issue of Washingtonian.

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