Black Girls Read Book Club
Simply put, Black women are killing every aspect of the game right now. From their domination in sports, (think Serena and Symone), to strides in business ownership and politics, to moves in the entertainment field (on and off screen), Black women are more visible and powerful than ever before. With so much #blackgirlmagic, it’s only fitting that stories by and about Black women have become even more sought after.
As a result, the longtime tradition of Black book clubs (Black women-centered book clubs in particular) is getting a shot of adrenaline. Online book clubs are reaching thousands of readers across the country, while inspiring book lovers to start clubs of their own.
One Chicago-based book club that is answering the call for Black women who love reading and building community is Black Girls Read. Black Girls Read was created for women who are interested in reading literary fiction and nonfiction works by Black female authors. Its founder Cynthia Okechukwu has had a lifelong passion for books and sharing her favorite works with others.
We spoke with Okechukwu about Black Girls Read, her inspiration for founding BGR and how you can get involved.
What was the driving force behind the book club?
I moved here 6 years ago for work and was new to Chicago. I didn’t have family in the city or a network of girlfriends, particularly Black girlfriends, to talk to about issues that we can relate to. At the time, I was following an online reading community called Well Read Black Girl, which is run by a Black woman and based in New York. All of the selections are books written by Black women. It inspired me to do something similar here. Also, after going through both college and law school where there was a lot of assigned reading, it had been a while since I read for pleasure and cultivated the love for reading I had when I was younger. So it really was a confluence of things where I had been looking for a similar community here and couldn’t find one and I decided that if I wanted it, I’d have to create it.
There are a lot of popular online book forums out there. What do you think in person meetups add to the experience?
There’s definitely value in having online only communities. I love that they bring together people who might not otherwise meet. But, I think there’s something really valuable in being together face-to-face and being able to read other’s facial expressions, hand movements and tone of voice- especially when discussing hard or substantive issues or humor. A lot of those things don’t get conveyed well in an online only forum.
Have you had any roadblocks in starting the club?
A challenge that in-person book clubs have is that it’s hard to find spaces for people to meet. It’s been hard to find spacing that can accommodate spacing for 30 people that’s both conducive to conversation and that doesn’t cost a fortune. We meet all over the city. I would love for us to have a home base, but it’s hard to come by. On the other hand, it’s also allowed us to explore different neighborhoods in the city. The opportunity to see the whole city in the search for a meeting space has been fun in addition to being a challenge.
What has been the most popular book in the club?
Recently we read Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X– a young adult’s book in verse. It was really popular and was recommended by a couple of people in the group. It’s a story about an Afro-Latina girl coming of age. It was a young adult’s novel, but there were elements of the story that everyone could relate to. It was a really fun discussion, not just about the book, but the reader’s personal experiences. Michelle Obama’s book Becoming was also very popular. Generally the books we read are well received.
What would you say to a girl who hasn’t discovered Black woman authors yet?
One thing I would say is that they’re out there. One thing that I found in curating in the list of books that people recommend and doing my own “To-read” list is that there’s such diversity in the Black female experience. In Black Girls Read, I really make it a point to read not just Black female American authors, but also Black women writing from all around the world. We’ve read Zadie Smith and immigrant first generation stories like Elizabeth Acevedo’s novel. We’ve read African literature. I’d love for us to read works from Australia and Asia and more from South America and the Caribbean. There’s such range. We’re reading stories about women who are from the Midwest, the Coasts. We’re reading biographies like Michelle Obama and fantasy like Octavia Butler.
Anyone whose saying the literature doesn’t exist is just not looking hard enough. If there’s a Black girl or a brown girl whose being told their stories aren’t out there, they’re being lied to. It’s been so gratifying to see the range of Black female experiences and the diversity in our own stories and knowing that it’s not a limiting category. There are so many stories in the Black female experience to tell… I hope this energy around literature from people of color in general, and Black women specifically will mean we’ll find these books earlier on.
How can someone join the club?
We’re mostly on Meetup.com. Our Instagram page also connects you with the meetup group. It’s dues based to help us cover fees for meetup.com and for rental spaces. It’s a small fee. All are welcome. We generally meet on the last Sunday of the month from 2-4 pm.
It’s always exciting to have new people- Black women who are new to Chicago and women of all backgrounds to share these stories with us. It’s been great to see the community grow and people come back and become friends over the years.
The next book Black Girls Read meeting will take place on Sunday, October 27 at 1 pm. Black Girls Read will partner with Women & Children First bookstore’s Well-Read Black Girl Book Group for a discussion of Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion by Tanisha C. Ford.
You can find our more about Black Girl Read here or on Instagram at @blackgirlsreadchi.