Local author Barbara Gathers was in the final stages of writing her 2015 book, From Back Da Green, when the idea crept into her mind: How many other African-American writers are in the Charleston area? How many other struggling, self-published authors were out there, who lacked connections and opportunities to sell their books?
When Gathers' book came out, she made use of a lifetime of civic and social activism to create events and sell a lot of copies. And along the way she met a lot of fellow writers and aspiring writers, began collecting names and email addresses, and started networking and calling on many old connections.
You can enjoy the result of her labors on Sept. 17, when the Black Ink Book Festival kicks off at Burke High School, at 1 p.m. More than 30 black authors from Charleston, Berkeley, and Dorchester counties will be on hand to sell and sign their books, which range from children's stories to fiction, biography and autobiography, history, self-help, and more.
"I was truly amazed when I discovered how many black writers there are in the area," Gathers says. "And I know there must be some we have not reached."
Gathers' editor, and fellow Black Ink event organizer Steve Hoffius, credits the rise in self-publishing for the number of participants in Black Ink. He estimates that about half of the participating authors, a number that currently sits at 35, are self-published.
Just getting your book out there, though, isn't always enough. "It's hard to find an audience," says Hoffius. With Black Ink, local African-American authors now have a space to reach out to potential fans. "All of these people have stories to tell and would love to have an outlet for them," he says.
The four-hour event will feature a panel discussion with Charleston poet laureate Marcus Amaker, creator of Gullah, Gullah Island, Ron Daise, children's book author Sybil Nelson, and more. There will be a poetry slam for teens and workshops for those who are ready to begin writing or who want to hone their skills.
Not least among those who will be offering books will be Gathers herself. Her autobiography, From Back Da Green, is the story of growing up in downtown Charleston in the mid-20th century. Gathers graduated from North Carolina A&T University and had a long career as a manager with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Department, fighting for the rights of all workers.
Along the way she owned a downtown gift shop specializing in Afro-centric art, music, books, and clothes. She has successfully battled breast cancer and undergone a heart transplant. Over the years she has traveled the world and rubbed elbows with politicians and personalities from Sen. Strom Thurmond to Cuban president Fidel Castro, First Lady Hillary Clinton, actor Sidney Poitier, artist Jonathan Green, Secretary of State Madeline Albright, Rep. Jim Clyburn and many others. And it's all there in her short but absorbing memoir.
Black Ink will also feature a book by Alphonso Brown, a well known Charleston personality and writer. For more than 30 years Brown has been showing tourists around town, telling them the history of black Charleston, a story that was unknown and unspoken outside of the black community until a few decades ago. Today his Gullah Tours bus can be seen along the Battery and streets in the historic district.
After he got his tour guide license in 1985, Brown started putting together his black history tour with help from the county library and other professional resources. He then assembled his notes into a book, printed it out on his computer, had it copied and bound at Kinko's, and started selling copies on his tours. Over the years he sold thousands of copies, until a few years ago, when History Press (now a part of Arcadia Publishing) approached him and offered to publish it.
You can pick up the Arcadia Publishing version of Brown's Gullah Guide to Charleston: Walking Through Black History at the Black Ink Book Festival, but Brown won't be there. He'll be driving his bus as he does every Saturday during tourist season.
The perserverance of authors like Brown — printing an entire book on one's printer is no easy feat — is part of what Hoffius loves about his job as a book editor. "I'm always surprised and amazed by the people who feel it's important to put their story down," he says. He hopes Black Ink will not only benefit current authors, but up-and-coming ones as well. "Almost all of the authors will be there — one of the most important parts is the interchange," says Hoffius. "If someone has an interest in the same area they can ask, 'How did you do it?'"