We’re lucky if we get that one person in life who nudges us to think critically.
I had my parents, both educators. I also had a journalism professor at Howard University, the late Sam Yette, Newsweek magazine’s first black Washington, D.C., correspondent, author of The Choice: The Issue of Black Survival in America. He gave out eclectic reading lists that included de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He made us memorize the Bill of Rights. He encouraged us to learn to play chess. I didn’t appreciate it back then, but he was trying to teach us to become intellectually independent and to challenge authority.
For CNN political commentator Marc Lamont Hill, that person was his late Uncle Bobbie. He must have been quite a guy, because Hill was so moved by the lessons learned in his uncle’s home that he’s created a bookstore/coffee shop and named it after him.
It opens Monday in Germantown: Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books, in the 5400 block of Germantown Avenue, near Germantown Friends School. It’s a sunny, homey spot filled with chairs and couches that make you want to pluck a book from a shelf and curl up. Hill, who’s also a Temple University professor, curated the entire collection, pulling titles from his own vast library and taking suggestions from friends.
During a recent visit, I spotted his fellow CNN commentator Van Jones’ Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Came Together and political strategist Donna Brazile’s controversial tell-all, Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-Ins and Breakdowns that Put Donald Trump in the White House. Hill, who has a teenage daughter, also created sections for young adults and kids, with classic titles including Happy to be Nappy by Bell Hooks and Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans.
“This is an area where you can come relax, bring a group of friends,” said Hill, a former Daily News columnist who has a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. “I’ve got kind of like a home kind of vibe here. I didn’t want it to feel too upscale. I wanted it to feel like home — but a nice home.”
At a time when independent booksellers are disappearing and Starbucks stores are everywhere, Hill knows better than to be in it strictly for the money. Instead, he’s aiming to create a community-oriented gathering spot where people can hang out, have political discussions, and grow intellectually.
He credits his father’s brother, who died in 1994, with having sparked his own racial consciousness.
“He was born in 1917. He would be 100 this year. He, like my father, was from the South. He fought in World War II, and when he came home from the war, he realized that he still wasn’t treated like a full American,” Hill told me as he guided me around the new establishment, located in a former daycare center.
“He had to ride behind Nazi POWs on the train ride back home. Because he had such a difficult time, he began to think really critically about race,” Hill said. “He moved up North to Philadelphia. He lived right on 12th Street and Diamond, one block from my office at Temple right now. I would go to Uncle Bobbie’s house and he would talk to me about stuff. He would say, ‘You could watch the Phillies game, but they just started getting black players.’ You know, stuff like that. Putting little seeds in my head.”
“I’d seen People and Time magazines, but when you went to Uncle Bobbie’s house, he also had Ebony, Jet, and Black Enterprise,” said Hill, who has taught at Morehouse College and Columbia University and has been a political contributor for Fox News and MSNBC. “He gave me a book called the Black Bourgeoisie by E. Franklin Frazier, an original copy. He was reading sociology, and this man didn’t even finish high school. Of course, my Aunt Bessie was there, so I got good food, too. I wanted to create a place that was an homage for him and for what he did for me. He really was a man ahead of his time.”
Those precious visits to his uncle’s house paid off. Hill is not yet 40, but has found time to author four nonfiction books, most recently Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond.
Next door to Uncle Bobbie’s, he hopes to establish a nonprofit called the People’s Education Center.
Somewhere in heaven, Uncle Bobbie is getting a high five.