Natalie Moore: Shelf Lives

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Natalie Moore, author of Deconstructing Tyrone: A New Look at Black Masculinity in the Hip-Hop Generation and Almighty Black P Stone Nation: The Rise, Fall and Resurgence of an American Gang, lives on a quiet street in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. Her condo, full of posters, paintings, and photography depicting the African American experience, mirrors the heart of this community that was once called “the Black Metropolis.”  Spread out among the piano and couches in her living room are short, tidy stacks of books. In the hallway stands a lone bookcase crammed with some of Moore’s favorite reads, including those written by mentors Ron Stodghill and E. Ethelbert Miller. At the end of the hallway is Moore’s “office.” The award-winning community journalist, teacher, and author doesn’t work behind a desk in an office chair. She’s more relaxed and writes in her den, sitting on a soft loveseat next to two wooden bookcases.  

JESSICA ROSENBERG: Here in the den, do you organize the books by genre?
NATALIE MOORE: Yes. I try to put a lot of the women’s issues, like women’s studies books, over here so it isn’t totally mixed. But there’s Assata Shakur’s biography, the autobiography of Elaine Brown, some anthologies. This one is Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader on U.S. Women’s History. Some of these are college books: Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and then I have Listen Up: Voices From the Next Feminist Generation; Words of Fire: Anthology of African American Women’s Thought; Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Post War America 1945-1960—this was a book I really liked in college. So that’s what is over here.  

TQO: So the left side is women’s history?
NM: Yes—I even have Judy Blume.

This side is probably history also. Caribbean history. I’ve never read the Manuel Noriega book but it’s one that I thought I would get to one day. Che Guevara, James Baldwin.  Here’s some fiction—I’m a big fan of Mat Johnson’s Hunting in Harlem. It’s a satire on gentrification in Harlem. I have some Cornel West in here, some African history in here.  This book I did not like: Sex and the City, the Candace Bushnell book that was the basis of the show.

TQO: Why didn’t you like it?
NM: She’s not a good writer. The show was much better. 

TQO: So are your books organized alphabetically?
NM: No, no. It’s a hodgepodge. I’d say only the feminist work is somewhat organized.  Up here (on top of the bookcase) it’s a mix of political books as well as some novels. Here’s Studs Terkel’s Working. I also put some big books here [to] hold the weight of the other ones.  

I don’t have enough space to have one room dedicated [as a] library, so I’m fine with books being all over. I just need more bookcases so I can keep growing and not have to clean up when somebody comes over so there aren’t books on the floor. That’s what I would like. I don’t believe in alphabetical organization—that’s a bit much for me, too much organization. I like having the feminism and history blended with a little bit of fiction. I think there’s probably more fiction in the hallway. I would like books by the piano—I would like more bookcases there. I want the feel of books throughout my space and not just one dedicated room—at least while I’m living in a condo.

TQO: When you are looking for one particular book, how do you go about locating it?
NM: That’s a really good question. I think there’s something intrinsic: I know where it is. I can kind of feel where it is. 

I like to support local bookstores. But sometimes you can’t find books there, so I’ll go on Amazon for those. But here I like 57th Street Books. When I lived in St. Paul, Minnesota, there was a great bookstore called Ruminator Books; [it used to be] called Hungry Mind.  I lived in Portland, Oregon, at one point and they have Powell’s, the world’s best bookstore.  It’s a city block and you get a map. When I visit Portland I [leave] with a hundred dollars in books. [laughs]

So I like the feel of bookstores. I’m on book tour now. I like Marcus Books in Oakland—I’ve done a couple of readings there. I’m going to Barnes and Noble. Usually the readings are intended to be at independent bookstores, but unfortunately that’s changed so much that a lot of the bookstores we had readings at closed. But I did do a reading at Hue-Man Bookstore up in Harlem for both books. One day maybe I’ll get to do a reading at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C.—that’s a nice goal to strive for.

TQO: Were any of these books used for researching Almighty Black P Stone Nation?
NM: Yes. Black Gangsters of Chicago (by Ron Chepesiuk), The Promised Land by Nicholas Lemann—these were the two main ones. Nothing had been written about this topic.  I know I have in here Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky.

TQO: How did you come up with the idea to write about the political history of the Blackstone Rangers?
NM: It was the kind of book I wanted to read. 

TQO: What are you reading now?
NM: I’m reading a book now about the struggles of soap operas to stay on the air. I may do something with that. It’s an academic book; I’m just doing some background research.

I haven’t been doing much reading lately. I have a New Yorker subscription, and I just get so behind that I have to find a way to balance that magazine with my love for reading books. It’s a weekly, so you always feel like you have another round coming when you haven’t gotten through the first one. And these are articles that are ten thousand words and longer. There’s actually a story in The Washington Post [about] a book club that has stopped reading books and now they read the New Yorker.

TQO: What’s missing from your library?
NM: There isn’t anything specific that’s missing. I do have some books at work that deal with urban issues, urban planning, and how to remake cities. There a lot of books that I have not yet read that I always say I’ll get to, like the Noriega book that probably won’t ever be read. I read the Colin Powell biography, but that was a signed book. I have a decent number of signed books so that’s important to me also.

TQO: Such as?
NM: The ones by my mentors, of course (Redbone by Ron Stodghill and Fathering Words by E. Ethelbert Miller). I have some signed by Sista Soulja, The Devil and Dave Chappell and [William Jelani Cobb’s] other book Till the Break of Dawn, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

TQO: Why collect signed books?
NM: The books are signed to me, so that makes it personal. The Colin Powell book was a randomly signed book. But people like signed books. Even when I do book readings and the books don’t sell, they say Sign them, they’ll go, people like signed books. Maybe people think they’ll be worth something. I like that personal factor, the message. I think it adds value to the existing collection.

TQO: Do you borrow books or buy?
NM: I like to buy books. I like to try to build the library. I have lent out many books that have not been returned yet, and I’m working on not doing that any more. I’m going to start giving people a library card, or promissory note, to give books back. Although there’s one book there that my friend lent me that I never gave back. It was the basis for a freelance article, an essay on Leanita McClain who was a black female journalist and editorial page writer who committed suicide in the 1980s.

TQO: Do you ever get rid of your books?
NM: I don’t get rid of books. I don’t think there’s ever a time to get rid of books. I have a Kindle app on my smart phone—I can’t do it. I don’t want an iPad. I hate to sound like a Luddite, but I like the feel of books and I want my house to always be filled with books.  I kill plants. [laughs]  I think books are warm, and if you look at someone’s bookshelf I think you can tell a lot about them. Books and artwork are what I aspire to have my home filled with since I can’t do plants.

TQO: I don’t notice too many movies or CDs.  Do you collect either?
NM: I’m more of a book person. I do love music but I’m too lazy to put an iPod together.  I have an app on my phone that allows me to download free music so that’s what I’ve been doing—slowly. I have an iPod over there that has never been used and it’s three years old. I just can’t bear to even think [about putting] all of my music someplace. I do love music but I wouldn’t say I have a collection.  Most of my CDs are at my parents’ house.

I’m not a movie person. I’m not passionate about movies. I watch the same ones over and over again if they come on TV.  I think I own two movies—School Daze and The Dark Knight. I’d rather see plays than go to the movies.