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Long before this year’s righteous wave of anti-racist book clubs, before shelfies and Zoom meetings abounded, a different kind of reading group had to fight for its space in America. These groups started off small, usually in cities across the Northeast. Their chapters grew through word of mouth, or the occasional local listing, like one club’s entry in Freedom’s Journal that promised “to meet once a week, to read in turn to the society, works adapted to virtuous and literary improvement.” This note predates the same mission of many book clubs today, but it’s particularly moving when you realize where it came from: the Society of Young Ladies in Lynn, Massachusetts, one of the first book clubs started by and for Black women.
This was in the fall of 1831. All these years later, Black women are still leading literary spaces of their own—even if at a cost.
Many readers will recognize famous staples in the Black books 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 to no funding—who have been putting in the work for years, only to receive an influx of interest in their circles for the first time this summer.
Of course, that phenomenon coincided with books like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist swarming our Instagram feeds. It wasn’t uncommon for white readers, especially those emboldened by the promise of their newfound antiracist praxis, to suddenly mistake Black book clubs and content creators as personal guides for race studies. “I write intricate reviews, prompt my followers with book-related discussion posts, make book memes and hold giveaways,” says Kaitlyn McNab, a freelance writer who runs the bookstagram account, @kaitlyngetslit. “Still, I have been asked by followers to do more with my platform—such as start a book podcast, review specific books at their request, create customized recommendation lists, and most frequently, create a book club.” McNab, who works a full-time job unrelated to publishing, admits that balancing it all has been “trying 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, this hasn’t stopped her from going above and beyond—especially when it comes to protecting the space she’s built 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 clear that her book club was designed for Black women and non-binary folks. “I needed to let [white people] know that you can stand on the outside and look in, but this space is not specifically cultivated for you,” she says. “All the privilege that you’re used to carrying into spaces with you, it’s not welcome here at all.”
Yet this privilege didn’t stop white people from creating spaces of their own, spaces that still call and profit upon Black labor; ergo, this year’s anti-racist book clubs were born. No matter how well-intentioned, there are pitfalls to spaces like these—as critic Lauren Michele Jackson so expertly observed in her Vulture essay on the subject of anti-racist reading lists, the result often ends in “something of a vanity project” for readers. McNab agrees: “I feel as though many of these book clubs are, in reality, performative echo chambers of white guilt and discomfort that stem from realizing one’s own implicit bias but refusing to imagine what anti-racist work looks like beyond an Instagrammable book cover.”
For the white reader, an anti-racist book club may become a cheat sheet with all the wrong answers.
Fletcher is also “skeptical” when it comes to the efficacy of an anti-racist book club. “I don’t know what they’re doing with their lives outside of assuaging their guilt, their white guilt,” she says. “There is a part of me that’s like, ‘OK, there are white folks who know they are 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-racist book clubs serve as their own balm.”
What happens within the controlled environment of an anti-racist book club is exactly that, then—hermetically sealed into one sitting, compartmentalized into talking points and conjecture. It’s unclear if their methods make it into the real world, where there are no timed sessions or bulleted guides for those racialized on a daily basis. McNab wonders if clubs are asking their members the right questions: “Will readers humanize Black folks after reading these texts? Will they be able to, after reading specifically for the Black and not the folk?” she asks. “Will they approach novels as novels, and regard the authors within the full spectrum of humanity, instead of as race pundits or midwives of racist catharsis?” For the white reader, an anti-racist book club may become a cheat sheet with all the wrong answers.
Publishers, too, have conveniently skirted these questions, opting to capitalize on anti-racist spaces instead of making direct investments in the Black publishing community. As Fletcher puts it, anti-racist clubs simply provide a target market for “publishers who now want to sell more anti-racist books.”
Seeing the corporate world’s rollout of Black-authored book lists this year was particularly “bittersweet” for McNab. She had spent a year sifting white authors out of her to-read list as part of a personal experiment in 2019, and at the time, publisher recommendations didn’t exactly support her search for authors of color. By this summer, however, publishers evidently began singing a different tune. “What this switch-up makes clear is the belief that Black stories only matter, are only a priority, when Black people are murdered in the streets—or in our homes—and folks burn down cities in their names,” says McNab. “When Black people are in collective pain and are experiencing collective trauma, that is the only time the book industry believes our stories will sell. And as a writer, a reader, and a Black person, I feel gaslighted. Our stories matter, always. Period.”
But readers like Fletcher and McNab already know this. Their work is part of a longer tradition of Black thought leaders, of readers like the 19th-century’s own Society of Young Ladies, who have always understood the phrase “Black stories matter” to be true. They know the promise that these stories offer, the way they stretch and offer possibilities for Black joy and life.
“I think right now, a lot of our imaginations and lots of what we think is possible or can be possible is very limited to capitalistic values, or based on the ever-pervasive patriarchy,” says Fletcher. “And I think books can just show possibilities outside of that.”
“There is so much possibility in a book, so much promise and a freedom that isn’t always attainable in the real world,” adds McNab. “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 moment of protest. Books provide an escape, which is not synonymous with utopia, but rather an interruption or a departure from what we know.”
After a year filled with grief—grief for those lost to a virus, to police brutality, or to the kind of work deemed essential—there is an undeniable stillness to our days. “We are yearning for a departure,” McNab repeats. “There are many of us that are yearning for what the world used to look like before March 2020 or November 2016, and there are those who are yearning for what the world could look like in 2021 and beyond. Books hold that promise of beyond. Books offer a multitude of beyonds.” Black stories will be the ones to get us there, too.
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