Third World Press: Bennett Johnson publishes the books they don’t want you to read

Among the hundreds of organized manila folders stacked on every possible surface of his office, Bennett Johnson, II searches for something–an octopoid literary piece he found a few years ago, titled “Tentacles of Rage: The Republican Propaganda Mill, A Brief History” by Lewis H. Lapham. Published in Harper’s Magazine just before the 2004 elections, Lapham’s article revealed to the American public something Johnson himself is all too familiar with as the vice president of Third World Press: the silent existence of the “Message Machine.” This functioning apparatus of an oligarchic institution of Republican conservatives is characterized primarily as an insidious effort to, as Lapham explains in his article, influence contemporary political discourse through an intricate and far-reaching network of media. Moreover, this “octopus-like” system ultimately exists to substitute ideology for intelligence, making arguments about restoring “values” to distract attention from the critical issues at hand. The “Message Machine” exists to dissuade and ultimately extinguish the emergence or prominence of any liberal political discourse. It exists to keep people quiet.

Johnson, as a major stakeholder of the Third World Press–an independent publishing house nestled in the South Side, at 78th and South Dobson Streets–knows too well the seemingly omnipotent authority of a hidden power; he has worked against such an ideological system for his entire life. As a young boy, growing up in nearby Evanston, Johnson’s instincts always told him to question the obvious. After attending church with his family, Johnson asked his mother why it was necessary to “believe in God to go to Heaven,” and “what happened to [his] ancestors in Africa who never went to church.” Most of the time, Johnson remembers, his questions were answered unsatisfactorily. Perhaps this was why he decided to dedicate himself to giving the unknown and unheard a voice.

At Roosevelt University–the only academic institution in Chicago at that time without quotas on minority enrollment–Johnson found himself in the middle of a socially hostile climate, working alongside Chicago greats such as Frank London Brown, Gus Savage, Dempsey Travis, and Harold Washington on crucial issues of social equality and justice. Johnson participated in organizing a sit-in at a nearby diner that refused to serve Washington, acted as the primary liaison for the historic meeting between Elijah Muhammad and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and began an independent publishing house, Path Press, in 1961 when his friend Brown was unhappy with the publishing deal he received for his book, “Trumbull Park.” Johnson credits his time at Roosevelt University as a defining point in his life, a time that he now understands as a period where some of the deep-seated problems of race relations in the United States were made first visible to him. John recalls, “I’ll never forget my time at Roosevelt University…I saw my first debate between an Israeli and a Palestinian. And it could be played, and played, and played again and it could be valid today.” Johnson observes a certain permanence of the issues he witnessed as a young college student; he knows that really his work has never been finished.

And it is with this almost nostalgic energy that Johnson continues his work at the Third World Press, which Path Press merged with in 2000. The Third World Press, now in its forty-first year of production, was established in the same spirit and ethic Johnson and his friends shared as college students and young organizers in the late 1940s through the civil rights movement. Haki Madhubuti (a.k.a. Don L. Lee), founder and publisher of Third World Press, began the publishing house in response to a deficiency of adequate venues for African-American writers and poets to publish their work. The concept of a publishing house that produces, as Johnson describes, “quality books–product and content–for, by, and about African-American and Third World people,” was an innovative and revolutionary idea at that time; it was subversive and the ultimate method of bypassing the various “Message Machines” in place that made it impossible for minorities to communicate their ideas in the printed form. Around the time of 1967, when the Third World Press was founded, other black intellectuals were coming out of the woodwork and establishing small publishing houses in major cities themselves: Africa World Press, in Trenton, New Jersey; Black Classic Press, in Baltimore; and Broadside Press, in Detroit.

Unlike Madhubuti, an established black poet, who founded Third World Press out of a certain artistic frustration, Johnson founded Path Press in response to unfair publishing dealings that made it impossible for minority authors to make a fair deal with their publishers. Johnson, even to this day, deals with “the business side of things,” formulating optimal methods for minority publishing houses to prosper amidst a fiercely competitive mainstream market. In Johnson’s words, “the publishing industry is a huge white desert, with a few oases in it that have different cultures…The point is, that there are very few presses that deal with cultures other than the dominant culture in a real way.” The foremost problem Johnson identifies is that these “oases” exist in such few numbers that the necessary components of a large, non-independent publishing house are difficult to attain: primarily, capital and resources for marketing. Johnson further explains, “Like all industries, there are huge behemoths that control them. And key problems in starting any business are access to capital and access to the market. The difficulty for minorities is always access to capital.” Johnson also makes clear, though, the strange benefit of participating in a sub-industry that addresses the needs of particular consumers: “Getting to the market depends on what your target market is. So, if you’re dealing with minority subjects, they can muster [and] impact their own market.” In a sense, Johnson suggests that an empowering development of intimate consumption exists between black independent publishers and their readers; it functions to eliminate the “Message Machines” the alleged White Supremacy uses to produce and disseminate information.

The specific goal of producing, as the Third World Press’s mission statement describes, “quality literature that primarily focuses on issues, themes, and critique related to an African-American public,” does not limit the reach of the Press. In a “Message from the Publisher” for the Third World Press’s fortieth anniversary, Madhubuti affirmed that the Press “prides itself on publishing the kind of literature that advances the discourse of cultural and intellectual thought. We [the Third World Press] believe that, in these times of political, economic and social ‘progress,’ culture is still paramount.” Here, Madhubuti emphasizes the particular importance of stimulating a discourse rarely held at the levels of the Republican oligarchic structure Lapham described in Harper’s Magazine. Johnson, who, despite his age (he celebrates his seventy-ninth birthday on May 15th), continues his work with the same, almost anarchic spirit he had as a young organizer, says, “If you push too hard, you’re going to create a reaction that is not going to stop right away…in a democracy, where the people can change, they can move [it] forward.” Johnson’s eagerness to share Lapham’s article illustrates a certain commitment to “creat[ing] a reaction”; he knows that the more the “Message Machine” is made known to people, the more possible it becomes to dismantle the propaganda mill. Because after all, as Johnson notes, “Since the thing’s been published, no one’s refuted any of Lapham’s claims. That means it’s all true.”

Photo by Ellis Calvin