Lifestyle

BlackLIT celebrates Black authors—meet the founder

"I just wanted people to read books," says BlackLIT's Nia-Tayler Clark.

A split image of Nia-Tayler Clark, founder of BlackLIT, a Cratejoy box, and an image of the contents inside a BlackLIT box. Credit: Nia-Tayler Clark / BlackLIT

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Nia-Tayler Clark—an educator and the founder and CEO of BlackLIT—was teaching a 10th grade English class when one of her students made a comment that would change the course of her career.

“I was in my first year of teaching and I had kids who would just not open up a book. One of my students flat-out said in the middle of class, ‘I don’t read, Miss. I’m Black.’ And I was like, wait a minute,” says Clark. “I was waiting for someone to disagree with him or say that’s not right, but everybody just agreed. I’m sure there were students who may not have agreed with it, but they didn’t speak up or say anything. So at that point, I made it my mission to change their minds.”

In 2019, Clark officially created BlackLIT, a monthly subscription box that’s dedicated to celebrating Black authors and entrepreneurs. Each box features one book or more, three to five products from Black-owned businesses, and at least five discussion questions, which can help subscribers develop thoughtful conversations with students, friends, and loved ones about race and other important topics. You can order the box directly through the BlackLIT site or sign up through Cratejoy, which is where we first found the highly rated subscription box.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating female-run businesses that are helping to make a difference in the world and improve the lives of others. We spoke to Clark about everything from how books are selected each month for BlackLIT to what inspiring a love of reading in others means to her, both in and out of the classroom. Here’s what she had to say.

BlackLIT box
Credit: Nia-Tayler Clark/BlackLIT

This monthly subscription box aims to help improve representation, literacy, and facilitate discussions.

Reviewed: What is BlackLIT, in your words?

Nia-Tayler Clark, the founder and CEO of BlackLIT: BlackLIT is a bridge between a little Black boy and Black girl’s future and the barriers that are stopping them from getting there. I wanted to put BlackLIT in place so that they get exposure to Black business owners and Black books, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, or it’s a sticker that has a quote that sticks with them. I wanted to put that in front of them and their families.

A lot of times [in my experience as an educator], kids don’t read because they don’t see people reading in their homes. A lot of the people who buy BlackLIT boxes are mothers—they’re people with kids in the house, and the kids may not be reading yet, but once they get in the habit of seeing their BlackLIT box, they want to see what’s inside [and] the conversations start turning. BlackLIT is a way to transform education so that everyone gets the benefits of it.

R: What’s your favorite book, and did it inspire you in any way when you were starting BlackLIT?

NTC: The Hate U Give [by Angie Thomas]. That book really made something that felt so close and so far away at the same time—police brutality—become real to me. As a Black female and a person who has gotten the talk, that was a real thing, but I didn’t know how people actually felt in the experience. I didn’t think about the other side, the police officer’s viewpoints. Because it offers both sides, that book gave me a whole different perspective.

Being able to teach that book in my classroom, I’ve watched it transform the lives of 10th graders, [and] even their parents. It really taught me the power of literacy. I’ve seen their worlds open up because they found a book they liked and they were willing to try and become a better reader, because they knew that inside that book, they were going to be able to see themselves.

[After reading The Hate U Give], we did a social justice project —it was like our grand finale of the book—and BlackLIT was my project. It was like, if I could create something to solve the problem of representation and access, I would create BlackLIT. My students had their own projects, but when I presented mine, they were like, “Miss, you should do that.”

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R: Are you thinking about other educators with each box and how they might be able to use them in their own classrooms?

NTC: Absolutely. I want to lean toward that goal of getting into schools. One thing that I know [as an educator], is that you can’t just take a book and read it and close it. That’s not how you change the world. Conversations need to happen, dialogue needs to occur, so in each BlackLIT box, there are discussion questions, and it’s a way to start those conversations. That was definitely something I wanted to incorporate into each box.

And rather than just do a box that focused on Black-owned businesses—because yes, that is a need—I know that people need to read too, so I was very intentional about making sure a book was in each box.

R: BlackLIT currently offers four boxes—a fiction box, nonfiction box, a faith-based box, and a box for men. What went into that curation and how do you select books for the subscription?

NTC: I wanted to give people choices. If there’s one thing I know as an educator, it’s that people who don’t read definitely are not going to read something they’re not interested in. It just doesn’t happen. And when kids are forced to read something that they can’t identify with or they’re not interested in, it creates more pain than pleasure. I wanted to offer my subscribers options, so they can pick genres.

I pay attention to what month it is. So for Women’s History Month, we did all female authors. I pay attention to the current climate and try to educate people, so [for example] whether they support Kamala [Harris, the vice president of the United States] or not, at least they can have a book and decide for themselves. I try to consider what my subscribers need and what they want.

R: So, first BlackLIT was an idea you had that was inspired by your students and your love of The Hate U Give, and then you made it a reality. Were there any partnerships or platforms that helped you get started?

NTC: To be quite honest, I found Cratejoy. Cratejoy was like a central location where I could get all this information about each element of a subscription box. So, I started looking at Cratejoy like I was getting another degree. I became a student to all the information, and I would set time each week to just dive in, and while that process was going on, I realized that I wanted to make an impact now.

So, I signed up for a vendor event with no box in hand, and on my table, I had books by Black authors, I had shirts that were motivational, and I was talking to people. And when my boxes came in, I set them on the table. I started my business in April 2019, and my first BlackLIT box did not go out until January 2020, and that’s because I had to make it my New Year’s resolution, because I was very scared to put myself out there and get rejected.

Even though it was on my table and I would listen to people say, “Oh, I’ll buy that,” I would watch other people walk right past it, and that freaked me out. I would carry my little empty BlackLIT box wherever I went, but I didn’t open sales until [January 2020, when] Cratejoy really gave me the confidence I needed and the push. Not everything had to be perfect—you [as an entrepreneur] can use [their] platform. So, I just went for it. But that’s how I learned to put together a subscription box.

R: Did you always envision yourself becoming an entrepreneur?

NTC: Absolutely not. I started this as a passion project—I just wanted people to read books. At least once a week, I think about returning to my teaching job and taking my predictable teacher’s salary—even though it’s not enough money—because entrepreneurship is a whole other world. And to be honest, if I did not have my students to push me into making this a business, I never would have done it.

There’s one [employee] in BlackLIT, and you’re talking to her. I’m customer service, I’m packing, I’m copyrighting—[all of it]. I do everything outside of a one-bedroom apartment, where you’re like, tip-toeing over boxes. We are transitioning out, but everything was happening in this apartment. Every day, I have to look at myself in the mirror and convince myself that I made the right choice, because I’m just trying to keep my head above water.

COVID and the Texas winter storm just really stuck a knife in the situation, but I’m definitely willing to figure that out. And I’m so grateful for all of the resources that exist for people who don’t know [about entrepreneurship], and I wish they would put that in more people’s faces, so they know that it is an option for them.

R: How significant of an impact would you say that COVID and the Texas winter storm had on your business?

NTC: I had to stop teaching due to COVID. I loved that classroom—that was my safe space and I would have stayed there until I couldn’t make it in the door. I was not just a teacher, I also coached two sports. [But] once we had to return back into the classroom, it’s just me and my 3-year-old [son], so I was nervous about taking the risk [of] going back into the classroom, because if I got sick, we’re thousands of miles away from our closest family.

So, my jump into full-time entrepreneurship was definitely not a choice I would have made without COVID. It’s been both good and bad. I lost a lot of money, because most of the sales for BlackLIT came from vendor events, pop-ups, and face-to-face interactions, and that’s how I got most of my customers. But I’m so grateful for Cratejoy, because once I had to make the pivot to go online when COVID started, all I had was Cratejoy, and I was so thankful, because that was able to help us stay afloat during those months.

It was also at that time that Cratejoy really reached into their community and tried to amplify the voices of people of color, and we were able to sit [via Zoom] with people at Cratejoy and get our voices and our concerns heard. Cratejoy listened, and I really appreciated that, because that helped to balance things out and keep us afloat.

With the winter storm, the power went out for nine days—no power, no water. It happened on a Sunday, boxes were set to ship that Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. I never knew you could lose money so fast. Never. From my ceiling falling from the people above me, their pipes bursting, that’s when you learn [as an entrepreneur] about the things you don’t know. I didn’t have business insurance, so I had to eat the cost of about $10,000 of inventory, just soaking wet. It was a lot—it was definitely a learning experience.

But me being in the house gave me the time to really focus on my business, get clear on my vision, and really just go for it. COVID happening also gave me access to a lot of resources that I didn’t have pre-COVID. A lot of people are providing grants at this time to help businesses stay afloat. Through the DEC Network [in Dallas, Texas], I was able to gain a mentor, and that was what I needed to take my business to the next level. COVID was a big mess, but it also cleaned up a lot of things, and helped me consider what was important, what wasn’t, and it gave me the room to focus on things that were.

R: Despite those setbacks, you’re still growing and building as a business, which is inspiring. What are some of your future goals for BlackLIT?

NTC: I’m trying to partner with schools to make sure we’re able to provide things like culturally relevant, professional development for teaching. We’re trying to get BlackLIT book clubs in public schools. Also, putting [a] BlackLIT book fair in schools, [because] this box isn’t just for Black students, it’s for everybody. Because I know that teaching in a classroom again might not be my next step, I’m trying to find my way back into the schools, and trying to get as close as possible.

There are people who have friends, and they have no idea what goes on inside their heads. They want to know, but the conversation hasn’t been started. I feel like [a] BlackLIT book fair can help to start those conversations and share that world, and get those books that have been blacklisted from the classroom into people’s hands—by Black authors, Asian authors, Hispanic authors, by so many. Everyone has a voice and they should be allowed into the conversation.

We [also] used to offer a children’s box, but COVID completely snatched that away. With kids’ boxes, you have to break it down by age. So, offering the kids’ boxes is something we definitely want to do, and our goal is to get it done before the summer, so kids in the summer can have that outlet.

R: Any advice for young female entrepreneurs who may be interested in starting their own businesses?

NTC: Entrepreneurship has this ugly way of making women, especially women of color, feel really small. And there’s going to come a time where it seems like you have more reasons to quit than to keep going. At that moment, you have to have something bigger than you to prepare you for it, and my suggestion is that women [going into business] find that thing as soon as they can.

Whatever that thing is, find it now, because I cannot tell you how many times I just wanted to stand in the shower for an hour and just cry, or scream into my pillow, and that thing—that thing that’s bigger than me, it just keeps going. It’s the thing that keeps you going when the money is tight, or you get those unkind emails. But it’s on those days that, that thing that you find is going to propel you forward and keep you pushing.

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