'Seen, known and heard': Black readers find education and healing in book clubs

Khalisa Rae
·7 min read

While many book clubs are conceived as a way of connecting socially, some Black-centered book clubs are also interested in community building as a political act.

As book clubs for Black women and people of color more broadly have gained popularity in the last few years, many are filling both of those roles. These spaces are perhaps even more crucial through the ongoing racial justice movement and a pandemic that has kept many people indoors.

Clubs like Noname Book Club have the goal of making political and social education accessible to the masses, especially people of color.

Shakira King, project manager of the Noname Book Club, said elitist gatekeepers including book publishers, some scholars, and others “want us to believe that information and knowledge are only for some.” Created by the rapper Noname in 2019, the club focuses on books about revolution and political theory, pushing back on generations of political and informational gatekeeping Black people have faced.

Since 2015, Well-Read Black Girl, or WRBG, has been doing the same, through literature by authors of color and featuring Black and brown protagonists.

Founder Glory Edim, then a newcomer to New York in her 20s, was seeking community. She also noticed there were a lot of book-driven conversations that she struggled to connect with. So she took the matter into her own hands.

“The initial conversations about books lead to lifelong friendships,” Edim, a former marketing and branding consultant for startup companies, said. “A lot can happen when you’re actively looking for a sense of purpose and connection.”

What started as an Instagram reading list grew into a literary arts movement with more than 400,000 online members, and an annual festival taking place this weekend.

Related: These black writers explore America during the Great Migration and Civil Rights Movement through memoirs like "Negroland," "The Yellow House" and more.

Every month, WRBG brings together Black women across more than 150 chapters around the world to amplify “the voices of women of color nationwide and highlight famous writers of color in an effort to start a global conversation about the inequities in the publishing industry and education,” Edim said.

For so many clubs like WRBG, their purpose is more than a monthly reading circle, it is a communal gathering, a healing safe space, and a monthly ritual where people of color can feel seen, known and heard, members who spoke with NBC News said.

Katherine Morgan, Portland chapter leader of WRBG, said joining helped transform her self-image. “Before I picked up the Bluest Eye, I couldn't tell you when I had ever felt seen in a book, unless that book was nonfiction,” she said. “When looking through my bookshelves, I was embarrassed to note that I only owned books by predominantly white authors.”

Since 2015, Black-centered book communities such as Black Girls Read Too, Black Girls Lit, and the Black Feminist Bookmobile, founded by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, spawned across the country with a mission to make living authors of color part of the broader robust literary discourse.

While some groups existed prior to the pandemic, #BlackLibLit began in June 2020. Genie Lauren said she created the online community for Black people across the diaspora to discuss “works of fiction and nonfiction that tackle racism, globally.”

Each month, books are collectively chosen by group members. The community uses Twitter as a way to galvanize members and take stock of what interests followers.

“Black literature is the key to undoing our indoctrination,” Lauren said. “The clubs serve as reminders that our oppression requires collective forgetfulness from one generation and complete ignorance from the one that follows.”

She said this was crucial as she listened to the discourse within Black communities around policing this year. “Watching Black people argue in favor of police made it clear to me that more people need access to the conversations I got to witness online,” Lauren said.

With the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, some Black-centered book clubs have aimed to provide anti-racist resource lists for those seeking education and healing. Many book club members have said their meetings are one of the only places they feel safe to speak freely and comfortably among other Black women.

“I think that it has made me feel a lot less alone,” Morgan said. “Originally, we allowed allies into the group, but that changed the whole experience. When the group became Black women-focused, it allowed us to let loose and to be ourselves.”

Jehan Giles, another WRBG member, added: “Black women spend so much of our day-to-day life in and out of the micro- and macro-aggressive spaces that weren’t designed for us. To be in a space that was designed for us allows us to lean on sisterhood in order to imagine a world that cares for us, specifically.”

Image: Rapper NONAME (Josh Brasted / FilmMagic - Getty Images file)
Image: Rapper NONAME (Josh Brasted / FilmMagic - Getty Images file)

Meanwhile, book club leaders such as Noname and King said they aim to curate a space for political literacy with Black people at the helm. These learning experiences allow readers of color to take charge of their own self-education with books such as “Prison by Any Other Name,” “Disability Visibility” and “Captive Genders.”

In addition to spreading knowledge, many of these groups are also looking for ways to help small and local businesses. For example, WRBG and Black Feminist Bookmobile often partner with local bookstores and libraries, as a way to divert book purchases from Amazon while also building stronger ties within communities.

Many of these book clubs, including the Black School of NY also share curated lists of bookstores and other businesses owned by people of color to support their dollars. Noname Book Club has worked with over 200 library branches across 15 cities and maintains a list of more than 100 Black-owned bookstores.

This work is not only about economic support. Noname said the partnership they are most proud of is their prison book club with several chapters at metropolitan area prisons. Additionally, WRBG’s community partnership has led them to work with over 40 bookstores and multiple libraries including Women & Children First bookstore in Chicago, MahoganyBooks in Washington, D.C., Book Soup in Los Angeles, and nonprofit organizations, like the Sadie Nash Project, which supports activism efforts for young women.

Edim, founder of WRBG, said reading lists are curated with careful intention to ensure that the multidimensional Black women are represented. For many club members, picking up Claudia Rankine’s poetry or a collection of essays by Issa Rae is more than picking up a book, it’s seeing into the window of the self.

“Literature is one way for Black women to voice their desires for freedom, liberation and equality,” Edim said. “I am encouraged by the work being done by Black women writers like Sarah M. Broom, Saidiya Hartman, Lynell George, and Kaitlyn Greenidge. These writers continue to correct the historical record and counter the absence of Black women in literary representation.”

To realize this goal, WRBG will bring together thousands of women this year for a virtual edition of its annual Well-Read Black Girl Festival, starting Friday. The annual festival brings together readers and writers with a mission to provoke conversations around publishing, politics and pop culture, and to amplify new work by Black artists, authors and activists.

The theme this year is Black Political Power: Past & Present, and panelists include authors Tiffany Jackson, Mahogany L. Browne, Morgan Parker and Mikki Kendall. Poet Nikki Giovanni will be the keynote speaker.

While the WRBG Festival is usually an in-person gathering of hundreds of book-lovers, the space for respite and revolution will be virtual this year. But the mission remains: paying homage to Black women writers whose work empowers countless others.

Additional reporting by Zora Satchell.

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