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Her Story

Three Sistahs Press Hopes To Spotlight The Rich Legacy Of African-American Writers

Sam Holden
THREE WOMEN: (from left) Jadi Keambiroiro, Michelle Diane Wright, and Natalie Stokes are putting a female perspective on black letters into print.

By Felicia Pride | Posted 4/25/2007

Three Sistahs Press

While strides in self-publishing and technology advances have spurred the ability to turn anyone with a computer and a credit card into a "publisher," there's still a noticeable void in the number of legitimate African-American independent publishing houses. And there are less than a few that have been around for more than a decade. In the black publishing world, most people consider the Big Three--Baltimore's Black Classic Press, Chicago's Third World Press, and New Jersey's African World Press--as the pillars. Combined, these houses have published a range of black women writers--from Gwendolyn Brooks to Marie Evans--within the African-American literary cannon. Yet the fact remains that all three publishing houses are run by black men.

"Most history is white history," declares Michelle Diane Wright, a 41-year-old mother who was raised in Frederick. "Most black history is black males' history."

It is this position that motivated Wright, along with two other African-American women, to establish an independent book publishing company that looks to "ensure the original voices of black women continue to resonate in the world." Wright, Jadi Keambiroiro, a 51-year-old who lives in Baltimore with her husband and daughter, and Natalie Stokes, a 41-year-old Cleveland native, formed Three Sistahs Press in 2004. Their latest book, Broken Utterances: A Selected Anthology of 19th Century Black Women's Social Thought, edited and illustrated by Wright, represents a heavy and comprehensive explanation of the press' commitment to move the black woman's voice from margin to center.

Coincidently enough, the three owners and friends met at Baltimore 's Black Classic Press, founded by W. Paul Coates in 1978. Wright was doing freelance work, Keambiroiro was the associate publisher, and Stokes was an intern. The three met in passing and, after finding out about their common literary and business interests, they embarked upon a void-filling mission. Their mixed experiences in publishing and specialty skill sets--Wright is responsible for editorial/production, Keambiroiro handles publicity and marketing, and Stokes oversees business and financial management--provided their framework.

"Our symbol, which is a triangle, is the strongest geometrical figure there is and represents the fact that each of us brings a unique strength," Stokes says adamantly.

The press' first book project came together just as organically. Maryland-based poetess Tonya Maria Matthews approached the three women at the Three Sistahs launch party. Her poetry collection, Still Swingin', which was first published by BlackWords Press, founded by Washington poet Kwame Alexander, went out of print and was left without a home when the publisher shut down operations in 2005. Wright, who has been friends with Matthews for years, says that the reprint was a perfect first project for the press because it required fewer resources, aligned with the press' mission to publish important out-of-print works, and catered to the performance poet's built-in following. Three Sistahs reissued Still Swingin' in 2005.

As an independent publisher, Three Sistahs retains both realistic and idealistic views on its reason for existence. On one hand, the press is committed to publishing quality books and won't opt for the cheap paper just because of a limited budget. The bottom line doesn't drive efforts. And the women aren't interested in publishing "popular" or "commercial" titles that will allow them to ride a bandwagon to more readers.

On the other hand, they are fully aware that they are "bootstrapping" without financial backing. Unlike a publisher such as Random House, Three Sistahs isn't in a position to negotiate printing costs or spend thousands to advertise its books. Creativity is not a luxury. The three co-publishers are limited and free in their publishing activities.

The genesis of Broken Utterances was fostered by Wright's master's thesis on black women and political thought that she completed at Ohio State University. After conducting preliminary research, Wright found a resonance for issues of today's black women in the voices of 19th-century black women--such as an 1886 speech written by Anna Julia Cooper, a former slave who earned a master's degree in mathematics in 1885. Cooper dedicated her life to teaching and published a seminal work of essays in 1892 called A Voice From the South: By a Black Woman of the South. The early feminist's words are clairvoyant, as black women continue to be vilified by a range of forces from Don Imus to hip-hop:

I would beg, however, with the doctor's permission, to add my plea for the Colored Girls of the South: --that large, bright, promising, fatally beautiful class that stand shivering like a delicate plantlet before the fury of tempestuous elements, so full of promise and possibilities, yet so sure of destruction; often without a father to whom they dare apply the loving term, often without a stronger brother to espouse their cause and defend their honor with his life's blood; in the midst of pitfalls and snares, waylaid by the lower classes of white men, with no shelter no protection nearer than the great blue vault above . . .

Broken Utterance's diverse collection features journal entries, essays, speeches, and writing from traditional historical figures such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, as well as lesser-known writers such as Mary Ann Shadd Cary and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin. The 20 women included represent the lives of abolitionists, doctors, educators, essayists, ministers, orators, mothers, and widows. Each anthology entry is framed by a short biographical sketch introducing the woman and her work.

Wright explains in her introduction, "While a number of excellent anthologies and reprinting of primary texts exist, this volume combines the historic essays, speeches, narratives, letters, and journal entries of twenty women that have never before been collected between the covers of one book in a cohesive manner. The importance of this collection lies not only in the historical significance of each woman, but in the similarity and relevance of the issues they address to contemporary societal circumstances."

Wright's intent was to make the women's work more accessible and place it in a less academic package. While Three Sistahs plans to market it to colleges, it is more interested in the book appealing to someone who might not normally pick up a history text.

Legacy and how it is kept, packaged, and consumed is very important to Three Sistahs. In terms of preserving literature, the publishers are concerned about contemporary black women's writing, particularly as urban and street fiction crowd the streets of Baltimore and the bookshelves in Barnes and Nobles. Even with the books the press has published and submission guidelines that state that Three Sistahs publishes work by and for women of African descent, but does not accept such genres as urban fiction or romance, the house still receives and declines inquires from male writers, Zane wannabes, and street-fiction storytellers.

"We are a counterbalance to urban fiction," Stokes says with conviction. "We share the other side of the story by women of African descent." She adds, with authority in her voice, "Part of the reason why we are here is because we feel that male writers have so many other opportunities that black women do not have."

Three Sistahs Press is not yet a full-time venture for any of the women, who all continue to work with words to pay the bills: Wright freelances as a writer and artist, Stokes is the associate publisher at Black Classic, and Keambiroiro works at a Columbia-based publisher. Yet they are committed to building a lasting institution by and for black women that won't be around for just 10 years, but will stand the test of both history and time.

The hope is that Baltimore 's literary community will continue to be supportive. Stokes says that a recent launch party for Broken Utterances at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum was well-attended, and she points to the support of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and local black media as especially helpful. Stokes believes that the "city that reads" is centrally located in the Northeast corridor, to allow the press to take advantage of what she views as a tremendous breadth of culture.

In the meantime, the three publishers are deciding on their upcoming projects and considering a reprint of the 1971 novel His Own Where, by another daring black woman, June Jordan.

"I was drawn to the eloquence and forcefulness with which they spoke and the limited resources and the environment which they had to work within," Wright says about the women in Broken Utterances. "They did so much with so little." As a result of this strength, boldness, and ingenuity, passed down generations through literature, three black women in Baltimore know they can, despite the obstacles, run a book publishing house.

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