This story appears in STYLECASTER’s activism issue, featuring Jurnee Smollett. Click here to find out more.
Long before this year’s virtuous wave of anti-racist book clubs, before bookshelves and Zoom meetings abounded, another kind of book group had to fight for its place in America. These groups started small, usually in towns in the northeast. Their chapters have grown through word of mouth or the occasional local sign-up, such as a club’s entry into Liberty Journal who promised “to meet once a week, to read in turn to society, works adapted to virtuous and literary improvement”. This note predates the same mission of many book clubs today, but is particularly poignant when you realize where it came from: the Society of Young Ladies in Lynn, Massachusetts, one of the first book clubs created by and for black women.
It was the fall of 1831. All these years later, black women are still leading their own literary spaces, even if it comes at a cost.
Many readers will recognize famous staples in the black book space, like Oprah’s Book Club founded in 1996, or rapper Noname’s own titular club, which has already grown to include a dozen chapters nationwide. since its inception in August 2019. But there are others, namely local clubs and content creators with little or no funding – who have been working for years, to receive an influx of interest in their circles for the first time this summer.
Of course, this phenomenon has coincided with books like Robin DiAngelo’s. white fragility and Ibram X. Kendi How to be an anti-racist invading our Instagram feeds. It was not uncommon for white readers, especially those emboldened by the promise of their new anti-racist practice, to suddenly confuse black book clubs and content creators with personal guides to race studies. “I write intricate reviews, invite my followers with book-related discussion posts, create book memes, and host giveaways,” says Kaitlyn McNab, a freelance writer who runs the bookstagram account, @kaitlyngetslit. “Nevertheless, I have had subscribers ask me to do more with my platform, such as starting a book podcast, reviewing specific books at their request, creating personalized recommendation lists and, more often than not, starting a book club. .” McNab, who has a full-time job unrelated to publishing, admits balancing it all out has been “difficult at times.”
Gizelle Fletcher, poet and founder of the For Colored Girls Book Club, is in a similar boat. “The book club is a full-time job, but it’s not my full-time job,” she says. Even so, that hasn’t stopped her from going above and beyond, especially when it comes to protecting the space she’s been building since 2018.
In June, Fletcher received thousands of new followers and requests from mostly white women on Instagram. Their sudden interest inspired her to share a post, where she made it clear that her book club was designed for black women and non-binary people. “I needed to let [white people] know that you can stand outside and look inside, but this space is not specifically cultivated for you,” she says. “All the privileges you’re used to carrying around spaces with you, that’s not welcome here at all.”
Yet this privilege has not stopped whites from creating their own spaces, spaces that still appeal to and benefit black labor; ergo, this year’s anti-racism book clubs were born. No matter how well-intentioned, there are pitfalls in spaces like these – as critic Lauren Michele Jackson so aptly observed in her Vulture essay on the topic of anti-racism playlists, the result often ends up being “something of a vanity project” for readers. McNab agrees: “I feel like a lot of these book clubs are, in effect, performative echo chambers of white guilt and discomfort that stem from becoming aware of one’s own bias. implicit but from refusing to imagine what anti-racist work looks like beyond an Instagrammable book cover. .”
For the white reader, an anti-racist book club can become a cheat sheet with all the wrong answers.
Fletcher is also “skeptical” about the effectiveness of an anti-racism book club. “I don’t know what they’re doing with their lives other than assuaging their guilt, their white guilt,” she says. “There’s a part of me that’s like, ‘OK, there are white people who know they’re racist and want to understand their place of privilege.’ It’s what they do with it that I’m skeptical about, because I feel like the anti-racism book clubs are a balm for them.
What happens in the controlled environment of an anti-racism book club is exactly that, then – hermetically sealed in a single sitting, compartmentalized into talking points and guesswork. It’s unclear if their methods make it into the real world, where there are no timed sessions or bulleted guides for racialized people on a daily basis. McNab wonders if clubs are asking the right questions of their members: “Will readers humanize black people after reading these texts? Will they be able to, having read specifically for black people and not for people? she asks. “Are they going to approach novels as novels and view the authors across the full spectrum of humanity, rather than race experts or racist catharsis midwives?” For the white reader, an anti-racist book club can become a cheat sheet with all the wrong answers.
Publishers, too, have conveniently sidestepped these issues, choosing to capitalize on anti-racist spaces instead of making direct investments in the black publishing community. As Fletcher puts it, anti-racism clubs simply provide a target market for “publishers who now want to sell more anti-racism books.”
Watching the corporate world roll out lists of books by black authors this year has been particularly “bittersweet” for McNab. She’d spent a year weeding out white authors from her reading list as part of a personal experiment in 2019, and at the time, editors’ recommendations didn’t exactly support her search for authors of color. This summer, however, publishers have obviously started singing a different tune. “What this change makes clear is the belief that only black stories matter, are only a priority when black people are being murdered in the streets – or in our homes – and people are burning cities in their name. says McNab. “When black people are collectively hurting and experiencing collective trauma, that’s the only time the book industry thinks our stories will sell. And as a writer, reader, and Black, I feel enlightened. Our stories matter, always. Period.”
But readers like Fletcher and McNab already know that. Their work is part of a longer tradition of black opinion leaders, readers like the 19th-century Society of Young Ladies’ own, who have always understood the phrase “black stories matter” to be true. They know the promise these stories offer, how they expand and provide possibilities for black joy and life.
“I think right now a lot of our imagination and a lot of what we think is possible or possible is very limited to capitalist values or based on the ever-pervasive patriarchy,” Fletcher says. “And I think the books can just show possibilities outside of that.”
“There’s so much possibility in a book, so much promise, and a freedom that’s not always available in the real world,” McNab adds. “Pouring the stories of those who are different from you, into you, is a kind of heart work that is more important than ever in this time of protest. The books offer an escape, which is not synonymous with utopia, but rather with an interruption or departure from what we know.
After a year filled with grief – grief for those who have been lost to a virus, police brutality or the kind of work deemed essential – there is an undeniable calm in our days. “We are looking for a start,” repeats McNab. “Many of us long for what the world looked like before March 2020 or November 2016, and there are those who yearn for what the world might look like in 2021 and beyond. The books contain this promise of The books offer a multitude of afterlife, and dark stories will also be the ones that will lead us there.
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