June 26, 2022

Black book clubs, from Oprah to Noname

“I want people to think radically,” Noname, the 28-year-old rapper, said in a phone interview this month from her home in Los Angeles. She is outspoken, especially on Twitter, about dismantling patriarchy, white supremacy and capitalism, but over the past year she has also opened people’s minds through more analog media.

It all started in July 2019, when she posted a photo of “Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi,” a collection of essays on the movement to develop cooperative economic practices. in the capital of the poorest countries in America. State. Later, another Twitter user replied with a picture of the book and suggested they “get pen pals and swap notes.”

Thus was born the Noname Book Club, a reading group centered on texts by authors of color (slogan: “reading material for buddies”). Hers is one of many Black and women-led book clubs people turn to amid a virus that has alienated people from their communities and an ongoing global conversation about anti-racism. Black.

What is essential for each of these groups – and why members find them attractive – has a lot to do with whether leaders create space free from white gaze.

The Black book club has, over time, served as a space for critical study, recreation and fellowship. In the 19th century, free black Americans in the North viewed literary societies and the organized literary activities they sponsored “as a means of attracting public attention, asserting their racial and American identity, and expressing their beliefs. in the promises of democracy,” wrote Elizabeth McHenry in “Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies.”

Dr. McHenry also notes in his book that “not all members of African-American literary societies wanted to be writers or enjoyed a direct relationship with texts.” Some members were not even literate, so they relied on others to share information.

By the end of the 20th century, the black-run book club had become a national phenomenon and a commercial success. Oprah’s Book Club, founded by Oprah Winfrey in 1996, introduced readers to black authors including Toni Morrison and Pearl Cleage in the 1990s and early years. Ms. Winfrey helped bring black literature to non-black consumers and created a blueprint for celebrities of all persuasions to become literary tastemakers.

Of course, many of Oprah’s readers — and the authors she recommended to them — were white.

The protests following the killings of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor and countless others have led many, mostly white, people to delve into books about race in America, like the best-selling titles “How to Be an Anti-Racist,” by Ibrahim X. Kendi and “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo.

At Good Books Atlanta, a pop-up, online bookstore owned by Katie Mitchell and her mother, Katherine, recent shopping trends reflect non-black shoppers’ desire to better understand race and whiteness.

“I’ve definitely seen an increase in demand for anti-racist reading, non-fiction that really exposes systemic racism,” Ms Mitchell said. These books are usually purchased by new customers.

Since its inception in August 2019, Noname’s book club has grown to nearly 10,000 Patreon subscribers, who pay at least $1 per month for membership. Others follow his book recommendations on Twitter and support the club by purchasing merchandise.

Although his mother Desiree Sandersowner of a bookstore in Chicago, Noname did not necessarily inherit her bookish inclinations.

“I wasn’t really interested in reading,” she said of her elementary school years. And even now, “I’m pretty unsure about that. I just do it now because I think it’s important, and I love language and literature.

His more recent interest in reading grew out of the formation of his politics. “I keep reading, learning,” she said. She supports the abolition – “of the American empire”, she said, but especially of the police, an idea that has gained wider support in recent months. Activists have lobbied for local police department budgets to be redirected towards social and mental health services.

She posts many of these ideas on Twitter, where she receives a lot of adoration and vitriol.

“Anything that’s going to be pro-liberation, I’ll always tweet without hesitation,” she said. “I think when you start to question the systems, it helps you open up other parts of your humanity.”

Her work extends to other forms of social activism, including sending literature to incarcerated people. Her book club’s future includes plans to start a grocery drive and provide cooked meals to homeless people in Los Angeles, where she lives.

“The Free Reading Program,” which she plans to launch once she hits 10,000 subscribers, will focus on one trial per month and be led by organizers and educators, according to the book club’s Patreon page. The program is specifically geared towards political education and will focus on themes such as Marxism and feminism.

“We read books, but under the umbrella of me continually trying to expand different initiatives through a book club,” she said.

The vlogger known as Jouelzy, who founded the Smart Brown Girl book club, believes there is a privilege associated with selecting and interpreting texts. The space she has created is therefore an attempt to remedy this.

“We have a cohort of female black graduate researchers who produce what we call curricula that guide you through the readings we do to make books more accessible,” she said. These materials include information about each author, book overview, themes and motifs, reading tips, discussion questions, and suggestions for similar books to read next.

Expanding the kinds of stories that are black-centric is what prompted 30-year-old K Bailey Obazee to set up OKHA, a book club in London that she describes as “hella Black and hella gay”. (“Okha” means “tale” in Edo, the language spoken in the state of Nigeria where she is from.)

Ms. Obazee grew tired of seeing the same black authors promoted over and over again. “We kind of try to make sure that you’re reading books, not just by the same people and not just well-known people,” she said.

Beyond the texts in question, physical space is also essential, especially for the largely gay members of Ms. Obazee (although the pandemic has suspended in-person meetings).

“It’s nice to create a safe space, a place that can be mostly a sober space, especially for those who don’t drink, for those who don’t want to party but still want to engage and connect with their community,” Ms. Obazee said.

The club also serves as an exhibition, where the work of black and queer artists is exhibited.

“It’s an opportunity for people who come to the book club to get used to other forms of storytelling as well,” she says, “because it’s not just written. We tell stories in different mediums.

There are chapters of the Well-Read Black Girl book club, founded by Glory Edim, 36, at independent bookstores in all 50 states, through a partnership with the American Booksellers Association. The clubs are self-run but follow the same book recommendations, which include a monthly title for adults and one for YA readers.

The book club also holds an annual festival, now in its fourth year. Past participants have included novelist Jacqueline Woodson and poets Aja Monet and Staceyann Chin.

“Last year our theme was Reading as Resistance, and it was kind of a radical act,” Ms Edim said. This year’s event, which has no date yet, will be virtual, but its ambition is just as huge: “Trying to find ways to just have a really positive impact and move towards black liberation “, she said.