DL Mullen, owner of Chicago’s Semicolon Bookstore, has dedicated the last year to implementing innovative ideas that support readers in her community. Now, Mullen is adding a national holiday to that effort, and hoping others will join the celebration.
This February 14, Semicolon’s employees will spread out across Chicago in celebration of National Black Literacy Day, a holiday Mullen and her bookselling team devised last summer. Mullen hopes it is the beginning of a lasting celebration that others will take up nationwide. She has submitted a petition to Mayor Lori Lightfoot asking her to issue a proclamation supporting the holiday, and if Lightfoot does it, then Mullen can reach out to Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker to see if he will do the same statewide.
Mullen began devising the holiday while seeing the impact of pandemic-based school closures in a city where illiteracy rates were already high, with Black and brown citizens bearing the brunt. The Chicago Literacy Alliance has found that 30% of adult Chicagoans have "low literacy skills."
“National Black Literacy Day should be celebrated by specifically directing your time or resources to literacy programs in your immediate area,” Mullen said. “The YMCA is amazing. Or simply read with a child to help them continue building a connection to the life-changing effects of literacy.”
The date represents a confluence of other celebrations that give the holiday particularly important meaning, Mullin said. “It’s during Black History Month, on Frederick Douglass’ birthday, and we also wanted it to coincide with Valentine’s Day so that, while people were in a loving mood, they’d hopefully direct some of that love toward underprivileged communities.”
Mullen's own work at Semicolon points to one way that people can celebrate the holiday. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Semicolon's #ClearTheShelves program has raised more than $165,000 in donations, all of which has gone directly to purchasing books that booksellers give out for free to children and young adults. The store will celebrate National Black Literacy Day by handing out free books at food distribution centers.
“We are in the business of increasing literacy rates by allowing access to literature, because that's what underrepresented groups don't have,” Mullen said.
To create the holiday, Mullen had to get approval for it to be placed on the National Day Calendar, an online registry, which then made it possible for her to file a request with the mayor’s office. While the mayor and governor can issue a proclamation, formal status as a holiday would have to be granted by legislative action in Illinois. But Mullen said she is not letting the procedural hurdles slow her down.
“It is our responsibility as a Black owned bookstore to help our community,” she said. “It's a responsibility that we don't take lightly. And we won't take it lightly for as long as we're in existence.”
In the Bronx, Lit. Bar owner Noëlle Santos said she plans to join Semicolon in honoring the day. “This is one of those ‘why didn't I think of that?’ ideas,” Santos said. “The Lit. Bar is celebrating whether the publishing industry gets on board or not, but I hope they do. I see this as a fun way to illustrate how literacy is the foundation of any personal or societal movement, and that book culture is not reserved for white people; given our history, reading is the blackest thing we can do.”
Mullen said she hopes others will join in on the celebration, and she hopes that will include white-led and white-owned bookstores and literary organizations. “They should definitely hop in and do something that helps to build their relationship with economically impacted communities,” Mullen said. “I think they’ll be surprised how many customers they don’t know they have, who need a little help financially accessing books. While I know as booksellers, our margins are low enough already, we’ve found that about 85% of customers that we give books away to come back later to actually spend money and always send their friends.”