Staff Picks: Billboards, Bookstores, and Butler


This Week’s Reading

Octavia E. Butler. Photo: Ching-Ming Cheung.

When the pandemic hit and we were suddenly living in a world I had never quite imagined, I turned to Octavia E. Butler to lose myself in a world she had. I read her Xenogenesis trilogy, collected in the single-volume edition Lilith’s Brood (please try to unsee the cover—whatever fool decided that these masterworks of speculative literature should be dressed up like romance novels is working in the wrong design department). Butler imagines a postapocalyptic Earth where almost all humans have perished in a nuclear disaster except for a handful who were saved and genetically reengineered by aliens. These aliens, called the Oankali, make it their business to visit broken worlds and “trade” genes with other species in hopes of mutual upgrade. In recent weeks, during the uprising following the murder of George Floyd, I have been grateful again for this trilogy. Butler was, unsurprisingly, ahead of her time in many ways. The Oankali have three genders, one of which is neither female nor male, and they view human racism and hatred with great confusion, as their whole MO is accepting and learning from difference. Of course, Butler’s epic also reveals much of the worst of human nature, and she’s helped me think about that, too—about what needs to change and how we might change it. —Craig Morgan Teicher 

Sister’s Uptown Bookstore & Cultural Center, run by Janifer Wilson and her daughter Kori N. Wilson, is located at Amsterdam Avenue and 156th Street. Its inviting, book-filled storefront is shaded by a purple awning that reads KNOWLEDGE IS THE KEY, which, along with the phrase reading is power, serves as the booksellers’ motto. Now in its twentieth year of operation, Sister’s Uptown provides a home for conversation among authors and intellectuals of color, both engaging the community of Upper Manhattan and shaping the national conversation on literature. In the words of Janifer Wilson, “We provide resources for members of the community to nurture their minds, hearts and souls with present and past works of gifted African American authors and other great authors and intellectuals including masters of spoken word.” Recently, Sister’s Uptown has curated a “Consciousness Reading Book Guide”—the selection available for purchase on their online shop—and their physical storefront has reopened with limited hours. —Elinor Hitt


The Modern Billings billboard featured at 5700 E Lancaster Ave in Fort Worth, Texas. Image courtesy of the Modern.


In my years of living in Baton Rouge, I made a point of road-tripping to art museums across the South: I saw a few iterations of the Prospect triennial in New Orleans but also the Frank Gehry–designed ceramics museum in Mississippi and Crystal Bridges in Arkansas, and I made regular visits to the High in Atlanta. Although my Houston circuit (the Rothko Chapel plus an Astros game) happened a few times every summer, I regret never making the drive up I-45 to the Modern in Fort Worth (I saw Martin Puryear’s Ladder for Booker T. Washington at his 2007 MoMA retrospective, and I’d have liked to see it again). Of course, during the pandemic, even walking to the New Museum from my Alphabet City apartment isn’t possible, but for the Texans among us, I was very glad to read about the newest installation of the Modern’s public art program, Modern Billings. The museum has taken over billboards around Fort Worth for the purpose of making art inherently public, part of the streetscape and the daily experience of Fort Worthians. The series was conceived in 2018, when it offered a counterpoint to museum viewing, but now it feels even more valuable—art scaled such that you can view it safely from inside your car, pieces that you can experience despite institutional closures. The newest billboards, curated by Mark Bradford, feature images from the archives of his friend Cleo Hill-Jackson. These vintage portraits of the Saint Louis hairdresser Mr. LaMarr look great online, and I bet they look even better through a car window. —Emily Nemens

I take language courses at the Goethe-Institut here in New York, and this past weekend I was delighted to see that they had linked to a free screening of Dagmar Schultz’s 2012 documentary Audre Lorde—The Berlin Years: 1984 to 1992. It’s a fascinating film that features an amazing amount of archival footage of Lorde discussing and reading her work, and it explores the impact she had on so many women writers within the Afro-German community. There are also a number of interviews with the poet May Ayim, whose work can be difficult to track down in English. After you finish the documentary, I recommend picking up the London-based Silver Press’s Your Silence Will Not Protect You, a beautiful edition of some of Lorde’s most essential poetry, essays, and speeches. —Rhian Sasseen

I used to think reading Playboy “for the articles” was a joke told by sitcom writers. I also used to think I didn’t care for true-crime stories. Then I read James Baldwin’s novella-length essay The Evidence of Things Not Seen, which was originally commissioned as a story for Playboy. The essay concerns the police investigation and trial following the murders of twenty-nine Black children in Atlanta between 1979 and 1981. Wayne Williams went to prison for two murders and was believed by police to have committed the others, but his guilt was and is disputed. The reason that the truth was difficult for anyone to make out, Baldwin shows in brilliant, compassionate prose, is that it was obscured by the lie of whiteness on which capitalism—of which Atlanta was a rising star in the eighties—relies. Baldwin unpacks that lie through a sweeping yet sharply focused discussion that encompasses not only the immediate facts of the case but also penal colonies, the Irish Potato Famine, manifest destiny, the Industrial Revolution, the Holocaust, Robert Moses and white flight, and the South African mining industry—true crime, indeed. —Jane Breakell


James Baldwin. Photo: Allan Warren. CC BY-SA (