The Black Cat: Eso Won Books allows me to reconnect to my roots

Shutianyi Li/Daily Trojan

I walked into the Eso Won bookstore early Monday morning in search of a book about love. It was the first day in a long time that rain wasn’t flooding the streets of Los Angeles, and the warm laughter of older black women was filled the otherwise quiet Leimert Park.

Eso Won Books is a tiny store, hidden between two other businesses and noticeable only by its large red lettering that stands out against the yellow storefront. It has been here for decades, ever since owner James Fugate moved to Los Angeles from Detroit. He wanted to create an independent space for black writers who are often shunned from mainstream bookstores.  

Here, every month is Black History Month.

The bookstore has been cherished by the likes of Michelle Obama and award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates, who once called it his favorite bookstore in the world. It’s located in the center of Leimert Park, which is dubbed the contemporary hub of African American art in Los Angeles, despite the rapidly changing demographics of the surrounding South L.A. area.

“Eso Won is one among a long tradition of black bookstores that sprang up to water [my] roots,” Coates said in an interview with The New York Times. “In much the same way we need diversity among authors and editors, we need diversity among the ranks of booksellers. They are the ultimate arbiters of our literary tradition.”

Over the years, the bookstore has become a haven for black writers so they can always count on their work being appreciated by someone, somewhere.

On that day, I was that someone.

The bookstore was empty that morning, and I spent nearly an hour wandering through the aisles, carefully analyzing each book to find the novel that would make my heart flutter and spark a fire in my soul, or, in Coates’ terms, “water [my] roots.” Eventually, I stumbled upon a book about love but not about romance: “Women’s Voices of West Africa,” an anthology of songs and poems written by West African women.

In the book, songs and poems from West African traditions are used to convey the emotions and sentiments of common experiences such as love, marriage and death. There is a love of community, a love of culture, a love of self and family conveyed through each verse, but there are also the stories of heartache, pain and worry. It’s hard to hear the tunes just by reading the words on the page, but I imagine that they are sung with the deep, soulful, belting tunes the way Nina Simone sings “Sinnerman” or maybe the way Aretha Franklin sings “I Say a Little Prayer.” African American music is rooted in the beats, verses and tunes that were brought enslaved by Africans, but these beats, verses and tunes have since burgeoned into their own culture through gospel songs, soul songs, hip-hop and rap. The traces of our ancestral roots in music are still very present but, simultaneously, so very distant from the continent they originated from.

Perhaps I picked up this book to only glimpse a culture which once ran through my blood —  having traced my roots back to a slave port in Dakar, Senegal, I wonder over the years about the person I would be, if I were more heavily rooted in the culture of my ancestors, whoever they were.

I think of James Baldwin, who, in “Notes of a Native Son,” spoke about the feelings African Americans have when they come across the Africans who are still in tune with the homeland. For many black Americans, Africa is less of a homeland and more a place we learn about through history in school. It is a part of the larger internal struggle we face, as we must come to accept that our thoughts and traditions are Western, and our culture, though unique and identifiably our own, is still American. The color of our skin does not change that.

“The African before him has endured privation, injustice, medieval cruelty,” Baldwin wrote. “But the African has not yet endured the utter alienation of himself from his people and his past … They face each other, the Negro and the African, over a gulf of 300  — an alienation too vast to be conquered in an evening’s good will.”

An alienation too vast to be conquered in a Monday morning’s good will.

I picked up the West African song book, and I was only given about 200 pages to imagine that I could come from any country in Africa (and that I could sing any song in the book) because as far as I know, it is possible that one of these nations listed was, hundreds of years ago, home to my ancestors.

The book approaches the use of verbal art as a form of expression, as a way to orally preserve traditions. Women have always used such methods to express themselves, though movement of such spoken expressions were often limited due to language barriers and a lack of written words. Today, both written and oral forms co-exist, but, according to the book, singing is still the primary way women choose to express themselves.

The book states that Songhai people (stylized in the book as Songhoy) live along the Niger River —  stretching from Niger, Mali, to northwestern Nigeria and northern Benin. Though these countries have faced long, harrowing histories of French and British colonization, the book still aims to highlight the customary songs that are passed down the same way, I assume, Negro spirituals were passed down to me.

For the Songhai and the Zarma (who live primarily on the West bank of the Niger River, from Northern Benin to the Southern Mali Border), Zamu poems are sung and sometimes relay themes of love and courtship.

“Last year this time I was a sweet potato,” expresses one song about a woman who has fallen in love with a well-off man she will never be with. “Last year this time I was a talhana [a plant that blooms year-round] / last year this time I was a nîme [drought-resistant tree] … / This year I have only rags to tie around my waste.”

In a song by Hausa performer Zabiya Uwani Zakirai  (the Hausa are the largest ethnic group in Africa, primarily based in Niger and Nigeria), she expresses emotional heartache after she and her lover seperate.

“I remember the day of our farewell / On the open space where we used to play,” she sings. “And for seven days, I have not been able to sleep / I have been thinking about love.”

It took me an hour to stumble across this anthology at Eso Won Books, and I bought it, along with an archive collection of New Yorker stories from the 1960s, which included Baldwin’s famous “Letter from a Region in my Mind” story and the magazine’s significant coverage of the Civil Rights Movement. I thought, as I left the store, that the traditions that are passed down in our cultures are still sisters, even if their paths no longer intersect. There lies the importance of black-owned business such as Eso Won Books, that understand the importance and value of bringing African and black American worlds together.

Dominic-Madori Davis is a senior writing about black-owned businesses in Los Angeles. She is also the chief copy editor of the Daily Trojan Her column, “The Black Cat,” runs every other Thursday.