For Literature-Loving Black Women, Online Book Clubs Have Lessened the Social Distance

Janelle Harris Dixon
·4 min read

If there was ever a time to cocoon yourself in the escapism and solace of books, it’s been this three-quarter year pandemic. We’ve had more unscheduled free time available for reading, a hobby that gets so easily de-prioritized in our gotta-be-here, need-to-do-that schedules, and in a presidency and COVID-embattled year that feel more sci-fi than real-life themselves, online book clubs have fostered community and comradery in the age of physical distance.

Veteran groups like Oprah’s Book Club and Well-Read Black Girl are mainstays, but Black women across the worldwide web have launched new book clubs and adjusted others that previously met in person to keep important discussions going and the sistergirl time they looked forward to intact.

When Kimm Lett, a digital media and communications strategist in Atlanta, launched Flowers Bookclub as a Facebook group in 2009, she envisioned it as a sisterhood space for goal-oriented women from diverse backgrounds. The books she selected largely centered the experiences of Black women—the first titles members read together were Kimberla Lawson Roby’s A Deep Dark Secret and Purposeful Action: Seven Steps to Fulfillment by Towanna B. Freeman—but she hoped the issues and subjects they discussed would generate a broader, deeper conversation about women’s lives around the world.

“I was a single mother, and at the time I was also a law student looking for guidance and a space to breathe. I wanted to create a soft place for us to land, a safe virtual space to learn other women’s stories where we go deep and get away from what’s happening around us,” she told The Root.

Flowers had grown to more than 500 members when Lett put it on a three-year pause to focus on work, her own healing journey and raising her daughter. But in March, when shelter-in-place orders were implemented to stave the spread of COVID-19, she decided to relaunch the book club, partly as a mental escape from the tireless shenanigans of 2020, and partly as a way to reconnect her community of fellow readers. Members meet quarterly to discuss the selected book with the author who wrote it—in late September, it was a Zoom chat with Deesha Philyaw about her National Book Awards finalist, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.

“Over the past ten years, even with a hiatus, Flowers has grown into so much more than a book club, but operating virtually can be a challenge when it comes to keeping up members’ focus and participation. Sometimes it’s too easy to join and not commit, especially on a social media platform,” said Lett. “I think most people prefer in-person meetings for a sense of closeness and willingness to share. So as the founder, it’s been my goal to offer that in the space, even before we can have meetups again.”

Singer Amerie is well-known for her R&B catalog (“Why Don’t We Fall in Love” is and will always be my official springtime soundtrack) but she’s got other contributions as a well-rounded creative: her young adult book, Because You Love to Hate Me, is a New York Times bestseller and, in November 2019, the voracious reader launched Amerie’s Book Club, “ABC” for short. Her favorite genres are sci-fi, fantasy and nonfiction, but she chooses monthly selections that highlight diverse and unique perspectives and voices, and hosts IG live chats with authors including Ta-Nehisi Coates, Yaa Gyasi and Bakari Sellers for more than 7,000 fellow readers and followers.

“Oddly enough, this year has brought me even closer to a passion I’ve had since early childhood—reading. And since many people have been home and online, I’ve been able to connect with amazing authors and readers around the world,” the Grammy-nominee said in a recent interview. “After years of building an online community on my love of books—and the other things that drive me: music, family, culture—I’ve found the best way to have dialogue with my fellow booklovers is online, where connection is energized and in real-time.”

Groups like the Indianapolis-based For Colored Girls Book Club and chapters of the Silent Book Club, where folks gather to read quietly together without the pressure of simultaneously finishing the same book and conjuring some poignant comment to share about it, will continue to meet online until in-person get-togethers are much less risky. Others were birthed virtually and will stay that way. But the shared energy of experiencing the art of story together—and discussing all of the emotions, ideas, thoughts and memories a good, well-crafted story invokes—is a communal joy. In this time, we need as many of those as we can get. Books are the currency but the platform for community and sisterhood is the payout.

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