Third Eye Books is the only brick-and-mortar Black-owned bookstore in the state of Oregon.
“And so what we’re trying to do is create an atmosphere where people can come in and embrace their culture and feel good about themselves as Black people,” says Charles Hannah, who operates the business along with his wife Michelle Lewis.
Scan the room and you’ll find books on topics ranging from cooking to fiction. The store is lovingly curated by Charles and especially Michelle, who says the store is doing vital work to help show Black Portlanders the power of books. To her, they’re more than just paper and words.
“These are tools to me,” says Lewis. “We have to expose our kids to the James Baldwins, the Zora Neale Hurstons, the Toni Morrisons. These authors always challenged the status quo.”
Since opening in its current location nearly a year ago, Third Eye Books has received an outpouring of support from Portland’s literary community, especially grassroots organizations like book clubs. Lewis is a member of a reading group for women of color called Prose Before Bros that’s representative of this surge in enthusiasm among the city’s Black readers.
Nanea Woods founded the group in 2018 with a simple goal.
“I want to carve out spaces for people who look like me and who don’t often see themselves in spaces like the literary world,” says Woods.
Prose Before Bros now has over 400 members. That rapid growth encouraged Woods to adapt and expand its concept into a fully-fledged Black book festival debuting in Portland this week.
“It’s called the Freadom Festival and it’s a celebration of literacy and liberation. We’re having it during Juneteenth Weekend,” says Woods.
The timing of the inaugural event with the Juneteenth holiday, which commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans, contains powerful symbolism for Woods. Black literacy was an especially powerful tool in the abolitionist movement of the 19th century and the years that followed the American Civil War.
“Really it’s an event to acknowledge the importance literacy and books had in gaining my Black ancestors,’ our Black ancestors’ freedom. Because at one point it was illegal for us to learn how to read or know how to read, or to read,” explains Woods.
While a celebration of Black history is at its core, the Freadom Festival also aims to foster community and highlight the work of featured contemporary Oregon-based writers like Kesha Ajose-Fisher. Her book, “No God Like The Mother,” won the Ken Kesey Award For Fiction in 2020.
Ajose-Fisher recalls the feelings of loneliness and isolation she experienced when her family moved to the Portland area nearly two decades ago.
“I even joked that the only Black people I knew were my children, and if I wanted to see another Black adult, I’d have to look in the mirror,” says Ajose-Fisher. “And it wasn’t that there weren’t other Black people in Oregon or [the] Portland area — it just was that we were so disconnected. We weren’t connecting in ways that I’m finding we’re able to now.”
Ajose-Fisher says gathering places like Third Eye Books and the book club Prose Before Bros are gradually driving that change, but she hopes the Freadom Festival will be an even bigger catalyst.
“I’m so grateful for people who look like my children — and people who don’t look like my children — who get to see what our community looks like when we show up to tell our stories and share our stories,” she says.
Michelle Lewis from Third Eye Books, which is an official partner of the festival, believes there is power in that fellowship.
“It helps when you see someone that’s a reflection of you,” says Lewis.
“We’ve always been storytellers. We’ve always written down our stories and handed them down through our people. And we have to realize that and remind our children and our community that, yes, there is a place for us in the literary world.”
The Freadom Festival will take place from noon to 6 p.m. Saturday, June 18, at Portland’s Peninsula Park.