Grand Opening of Revolution Books…

A Great Day in Harlem For the World!

November 17, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


Grand opening celebration at Revolution Books in Harlem, November 15
Grand opening celebration at Revolution Books in Harlem, November 15

It was a brisk November afternoon in New York City. 437 Malcolm X Blvd. The sign atop the storefront was just finished: Revolution Books. Balloons were bobbing in the wind. A crowd was gathering and growing outside the entrance. People were expectant, many peering through the book display window. And then, at 2:30 p.m., the doors to Revolution Books opened.

People entered wide-eyed, taking it all in. There were smiles, handshakes, and congratulations. “I was here over the summer when you first started renovating…it’s incredible what’s been done,” a professional consultant commented. A student from Columbia University chimed in with pride: “We were working late last night to get it ready.” And there were others like him and also people from the neighborhood contributing time, ideas, physical work, and funds. A long-time Harlem resident was beaming with delight: “We so need a bookstore like this!”

You walk in and quickly come upon the fiction section. Move along the wall and there are the shelves on the history of Black people. Look around and you encounter artwork, including African face masks donated by a Harlem resident and an old friend of Revolution Books. Glance at the wall opposite and there’s the section titled “The Emancipation of Humanity,” where Bob Avakian’s work and communist theory and the history of the Russian and Chinese revolutions are featured. Okay, later to browse…people are taking their seats. It’s now a full house inside, and outside (the event is sold out) people are sitting in folding chairs, sipping coffee, and waiting to watch and hear it all on monitors.

The grand opening celebration for Revolution Books in Harlem was about to begin.

“It’s On… We’re Here!”

Overflow crowd at the opening, watching the program on a monitor |
Overflow crowd at the opening, watching the program on a monitor!

Andy Zee, spokesperson for Revolution Books, went to the podium: “It is with great joy and with a serious sense of responsibility that comes from understanding what Revolution Books can mean for a radically different and better future for the people of the world, that I have the honor of opening the first program at the new Revolution Books in Harlem, NY.” The audience erupted in applause. He continued: “And I say to the world: It’s on! We’re here. We’re ready to make real just what we say we are. A center of a movement for an actual revolution, a bookstore with novels, poetry, history, science, philosophy, and more, a place about the world and for a radically different world.”

November 15 was truly an exciting and momentous grand opening. The great Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o had flown in specially to give a reading and talk on the occasion. Andy Zee spoke about the mission of Revolution Books. There was mingling and discussion. Ngũgĩ and Andy spoke at two programs in the new store: the afternoon event and a benefit dinner to help raise the $35,000 still needed for RB to be fully up and running.

People turned out from Harlem, and from around the city and beyond—people of different nationalities and ages; from different sections of society; students and scholars; activists and professionals; revolutionaries. All told, some 175 people came together to CELEBRATE. And they experienced a place where ideas and books and critical inquiry are taken seriously and joyfully—and that is a center of emancipation where you discover Bob Avakian and the new synthesis of communism, and a movement for an actual revolution to put an end to all exploitation and oppression. Where you are challenged and transformed.

Imagination, Books, Liberation…and Revolution Books

Andy Zee on Revolution Books

Andy Zee, spokesperson for Revolution Books

Andy Zee, spokesperson for Revolution Books

Andy Zee opened. His talk was called “Revolution Books and the Emancipation of Humanity.” He got into how Revolution Books embraces people’s dreams and hopes—indeed, “dreams in a time of war,” invoking the title of one of Ngũgĩ’s memoirs. Wars on women, on refugees, not to mention drone strikes, and war on the planet itself. RB is where people find, experience, and can engage science, history, philosophy, and poetry, telling stories of struggles and hopes and providing understanding of the world and how it might be different.

RB does this, Andy explained, “in the context of not just how the world has been historically or how it is today, or even an imagined future, but looking at all this with our sights set on what really could be. Because: the world today holds the potential for something far better. And to unlock that, at the foundation of Revolution Books is the most advanced scientific theory for a revolution for the full emancipation of humanity: the new synthesis of communism brought forward by the revolutionary leader, Bob Avakian.”

Andy looked out into the crowd: “The problems of the world today appear on the surface to be intractable. People are compelled to choose between ‘competing horrors and futures that are no future’—whether it be reactionary Islamic fundamentalism vs. imperialist modernity…or the ‘choices’ given Black and Latino youth, of winding up in prison or being shot by the police.”

Andy went on: “We live in a world where there is no socialist society, like the Soviet Union from 1917 until 1956, or revolutionary China from 1949 until 1976. These were breakthroughs for emancipation—but they were defeated. And for 40 years there has been no beacon of real liberation, and sights have been lowered. But the world needs revolution more than ever; it needs a way forward.”

And this is the great need that Bob Avakian has risen to. Andy talked about how over the last four decades, Bob Avakian (BA) has been charting that way forward. Avakian has developed the concrete strategy and vision for a new liberatory society and world—and, most decisively, Avakian has made a qualitative breakthrough in the scientific method and approach for understanding reality as it actually is, and for discovering and probing the patterns and pathways in the acute contradictions that oppress people today, how they are developing, and how this holds the potential for revolution.

In a world that cries for fundamental change, and many decades after the previous great socialist revolutions were defeated, Avakian’s new synthesis of communism is…a “game changer.” And that is the heartbeat of Revolution Books—and why Revolution Books is this center for emancipation and transformation.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: “The Book, Story and the Conquest of Time and Space”

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o 
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Andy then introduced Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Ngũgĩ is known and revered the world over as a master storyteller, an innovative literary and cultural theorist, and an artist of conscience and conviction. He has identified with and given voice to the oppressed, to those who suffer and struggle against imperialism. His work spans Kenya’s history as a colony of Great Britain, the heroic uprising and insurgency against the British, and Kenya since it gained formal independence in 1964 but still dominated by imperialism. (See“Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: Kenyan Writer Dedicated to Opposing All Oppression”)

It was utterly fitting that Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o would help inaugurate the store. And he did so with incredible verve, warmth, and humor.

The title of his talk was “The Book, Story and the Conquest of Time and Space.” He read movingly from an installment of his memoirs and told of his mother who did not know how to read or write but who encouraged him to learn—and, always, even when he came home with perfect marks, chiding him: “Can’t you do better?” And he recounted the glorious moment when he realized that he could write.

He teased the audience, “You don’t believe I can conquer time and space?” He challenged people to think about what they had eaten for breakfast and to jump ahead to where we are now. To think about places they had been and here we are. “You see,” he said, “you are conquering time and space.”

Which led to his account of being arrested by the Kenyan government in the late 1970s and being locked up in Kenya’s maximum security prison, which he described as “walls within walls.” He said he was able to “escape” by using his imagination to, yes, conquer time and space. Imagination, he said, is one of the most important qualities of being human: consider the architect who envisions a building—because it allows us to think about possibilities. It was in prison, he explained, that he wrote his novel Devil on the Cross—on toilet paper. He was able to reach across the walls, to the oppressed in Kenya and beyond, through imagination. (Revolution Books will soon be posting a video of Ngũgĩ’s talk.)

An Amazing Dinner

The fundraising dinner was itself a highlight. People introduced themselves; there was animated discussion; and Ngũgĩ made contact with old friends and new readers and admirers. Not least, the food was stupendous (and got rave reviews): Indian dishes by way of South Africa, Senegalese and Ethiopian specialties, soul food and more. Seven restaurants—six in Harlem and one in Brooklyn—catered the event, donating the food.

Provocative Q&A

Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Andy Zee
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (left) and Andy Zee

A lively Q&A followed the evening presentations. Someone from Senegal, now living in Harlem, asked Ngũgĩ about the relationship between writing in one’s local language, to connect with people at home, and being able to reach an international audience through languages like English, French, and German.

Ngũgĩ explained that the world is interconnected, but historically colonialism and then imperialism—and he gave the examples of slavery and Ireland—seek to suppress and steal people’s names and languages. The oppressors do this in order to erase memory and culture. People, he elaborated, need their own culture and language to speak to, reflect on, and preserve experience—but they also need translation to reach across borders and to share knowledge.

Someone asked about the influence of Islamic fundamentalism in Kenya. Ngũgĩ quipped that we’ve also got this problem with another fundamentalism—“capitalist fundamentalism”—subjecting everything to the market and to capitalist-corporate control—alongside religious extremism, which only helps imperialism.

Andy Zee, drawing on Bob Avakian’s work, and against the backdrop of the recent, horrific attacks in Paris, spoke about the clash between the two oppressive “outmodeds” of Western imperialist modernity and reactionary fundamentalism.

Ngũgĩ signing books
Ngũgĩ signing books

He got into how these “choices” lock people into the current intolerable social order; how if you support one you wind up strengthening the other, and both; and how Western imperialism is far and away the greater problem and fundamental cause of this—in the domination it has exerted and suffering it has brought and continues to bring to the billions on the planet. And how, here at Revolution Books, you discover the liberatory alternative to this. He also observed that when there were genuine socialist countries in the world—the Soviet Union before 1956 and China during the Mao years—this had a tremendously positive and revolutionary influence on liberation struggles. And now there is a new synthesis of communism that opens up new possibilities for making even more liberatory revolution in today’s world.

A linguistics scholar in the audience commented to one of the organizers of the program that he had been thinking about this question, and had some similar thoughts, but that Andy’s comments really opened his eyes and got him thinking in a new way.

You felt that solid core of Revolution Books, the science of communism as it has been taken to a whole new place by Bob Avakian, wrapping its arms around diverse artistic and intellectual currents, alive to all those dreams and insights—and raising this up. It came through in the exchange between Andy and Ngũgĩ…in the interactions with the audience…in the conversations taking place in the store and at the dinner.

A Great Beginning

(left to right) Andy Zee, Columbia University professor Jamal Joseph, and Noche Diaz from the Revolution Club, NYC
(left to right) Andy Zee, Columbia University professor Jamal Joseph, and Noche Diaz from the Revolution Club, NYC

And, yes, it was a joyous celebration. The afternoon program and benefit dinner drew notable figures. Jamal Joseph, a professor at Columbia University who is also on the advisory board of Rise Up October, came. So too did Herb Boyd, the well-known writer and chronicler of Harlem and a long-time friend of Revolution Books.

Several distinguished scholars attended the benefit dinner, including Gayatri Spivak, a founder of Columbia University’s Institute for Comparative Literature and a renowned voice against “intellectual colonialism; and Brenda Green, head of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College, and also a long-time friend of Revolution Books. Other distinguished professors, including some department heads, came from Columbia, CCNY, Hunter, Princeton, and other institutions. There were people from the literary scene, as well as the people’s media, from the Harlem Development Corporation, as well as people from the neighborhood and students just learning about and getting active in bringing this bookstore and center for revolution into being. Front-line fighters from the Revolution Club were at the dinner tables too.

The scene at the grand opening of Revolution Books in Harlem
The scene at the grand opening of Revolution Books in Harlem

Revolution Books’ move to Harlem, the renovation of the new space, and putting the celebration together—this has truly been a labor of love. More than $125,000 was raised and loaned over the last year. People have been giving their time and energy and creativity. Some 20 publishers—mainstream, university, and small independents—donated books for the grand opening.

A community of support and engagement is being forged around this store—on the foundation of its solid core of BA and the new synthesis of communism. It was evident in the conversations, in the formal talks and question-and-answer, in the good will that permeated the air, in discussions about expanding the financial base and raising the profile of Revolution Books.

After each of the two programs, people stayed around, looking at books, talking with Ngũgĩ and Andy, and sharing with each other. There was incredible warmth. This was a great beginning—with much more to come!

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"The film brings you up close inside Cornel West's and Bob Avakian's dialogue: the passion, the audacity, the science, the morality, the revolutionary substance. Two courageous voices modeling a morality that refuses to accept injustice – pouring heart and soul into standing together challenging all of us to fight for a world worthy of humanity."

Andy Zee,
co-director of the film


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