OCTOBER 19, 2020
BACK IN 1999, the 15 or so women who called themselves Sisters With Books, or SWB for short, were all strangers to me. Except for Angela.
She and I were both public relations professionals and met through the Black PR Society, an organization that continues to support and advocate for African Americans in the field. Our daughters were also in the same Girl Scout troop. It was at one of those Saturday morning meetings when she invited me to join her book club. Their next meeting would be the Friday before Thanksgiving at her home. She told me what to expect.
“November is always our last meeting until January. We take off December for the holidays,” she explained. “Instead of discussing our monthly read, this is when we choose our books for next year. Each lady can recommend a book and convince the group why we should pick hers.”
“Sort of like giving a PR pitch?” I asked.
“I guess so,” she laughed. “We vote until it’s whittled down to the 10 books we’ll read for next year. The process is fun but can get pretty intense. And we also decide the monthly moderator and whose house it’ll be at.”
“That’s impressive,” I said. “You guys are really organized.”
Angela nodded and smiled her hot pink lipstick smile. “Oh yes.”
Already, I was thinking about who could babysit for me.
That evening as she introduced me to the ladies, I wished they wore “Hello My Name Is ____” stickers on their T-shirts or blouses. How would I remember who was who? Their happy-to-be-here energy reminded me of a church social after Sunday service. Still, I felt awkward to not be a part of their sometimes raucous bantering. I too wanted to pipe in about Compton homegirl Serena Williams’s recent win at the US Open, or the latest goings-on of Bill Clinton, who we called our “First Black President.”
I watched them fellowship around the potluck set up on Angela’s kitchen island and the dining room table. Their hairstyles fluctuated from flat-ironed bobs like mine, to fluffy natural curls and cropped Afros, to salt-and-pepper or blonde-ish locs. Brown skin ranged from almond shell beige to mocha chocolate.
“Help yourself to some food,” Angela encouraged me. Store-bought and home-cooked goodies sat housed in Tupperware and takeout containers, ready to be washed down with soft drinks or Arizona Sweet Tea, served in clear plastic cups.
With my baked chicken, fresh fruit, and fried catfish strips on a small but sturdy paper plate, I moved to the living room. A black leather couch, a worn La-Z-Boy recliner, and a variety of chairs, including those matching the dining room table, formed an uneven semicircle. I took a seat in a folding chair. Eating was easier than talking, so I tuned into the lively conversation before the evening’s book discussion.
“My daughter got accepted to Howard,” someone gushed to the group.
The living room erupted in rounds of “Congratulations!” and “Girl, that’s wonderful, you must be so proud.”
I thought of Howard’s range of alumni, from Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, to US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, to actor Phylicia Rashād.
“Wasn’t Howard one of your all’s alma mater?” one of the ladies asked, tilting her head to look at a book club member who apparently had graduated from an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). “You sure you didn’t have anything to do with getting her in?”
I was positive that wasn’t the case. My hunch was confirmed when the ladies answered the question with good-natured whoops and hollers. I laughed, too. It was then I knew my feelings of self-consciousness would go away. I found myself looking forward to sharing a love for reading, and a camaraderie that could turn into friendships. Better yet, to sisterhood. I got up to help myself to some more of that stick-to-my-ribs food, and thought about bringing some of my banana nut bread to the next get-together.
Sisters With Books formed in 1992 (four years prior to Oprah’s influential one), by a half-dozen book-loving African American teachers from the Los Angeles Unified School District. The founders wanted an adult activity that didn’t involve their children. They formed the club and books from Terry McMillan, Pearl Cleage, and Octavia Butler were voraciously welcomed by an underserved Black female audience. At the same time, an interest in books by the likes of Harlem Renaissance writers Zora Neale Hurston, Dorothy West, and Nella Larsen were being rediscovered.
Twenty-eight years later with a current roster of 31 Black women, SWB is still going strong after hundreds of meetings and 300 books. The books we read, many with themes rooted in the past of our descendants, often remind us that as African American women, we are forever bound by the unique legacy of our ancestors’ enslavement.
We read Maud Martha, the only novel written by Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. As the story follows the eponymous character moving through her ordinary life, the sensitive yet still prevalent theme of colorism in the Black community surfaces.
We have read several paperbacks by Beverly Jenkins, whose historical and contemporary romance novels often focus on 19th-century African American life. In Indigo, the heroine herself was once enslaved, and is a dedicated member of the Underground Railroad. Another literary journey to a time past but not forgotten is Tananarive Due’s The Living Blood, a supernatural thriller featuring African immortals — a genre the author terms horror noire — that took us on a trek through ancient Ethiopia.
Then there was British novelist Yvvette Edwards’s A Cupboard Full of Coats. It tells the story of a young woman in the East End of London who learns what really happened when her murdered mother tried to free herself from an abusive relationship.
We chat about books authored for the most part by women from the African diaspora, but SWB has also voted to read works from white, brown, Asian, and male writers. There is the road novel Before I Forget by Leonard Pitts Jr., centering around three generations of Black men who are unable to understand the heritage that bonds them, each grappling with their respective fatherhood roles.
Some selections have left an enduring impact. When we discussed Isabel Wilkerson’s epic about the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, we instinctively connected and reflected on the experiences of some of our own grandparents and great-grandparents. While reading about this exodus of Southern Blacks to urban areas of the North and West, we reminded ourselves of the historical part they unknowingly played. It became emotional as we talked about their courage and our gratitude. In a quest to forge a better life for themselves and future generations, those that came before us packed large amounts of hope and determination alongside material belongings.
Just as our ancestors persevered, SWB has pressed on in spite of COVID-19, refusing to let a global pandemic interrupt our flow. We stick to the monthly book selection, and keep to our last Friday of the month meeting schedule with online videoconferencing. With mostly retired schoolteachers, corporate-types, and medical professionals in the book club, it’s no surprise we keep our structure in place.
But there are things outside of SWB’s control — and apparently Black America’s — that painfully reveal to us the times in which we live.
Four days before our May 29, 2020, online meeting, cell phones in Minneapolis, Minnesota, recorded videos of an unarmed George Floyd pleading for mercy while trying to catch his breath. Beneath the knee of a white policeman, the African American man’s neck was crushed and his life ended. Protestors in cities across America were beginning to organize and communicate their anger. I hoped they would do so peacefully.
That Friday, the familiar faces of SWB popped up on my computer screen. We had come together that evening to discuss Becoming, Michelle Obama’s memoir, but spent half an hour first talking about the injustices of yet another senseless killing of a Black man. Albeit by Zoom, the sisterhood was ready to share grief and convey no-holds-barred opinions about this tragedy. Voices with no interest in using the mute button overlapped, jockeying to be heard above each other. Everyone had something to say about America’s systemic racism, an unjust legal system, and reactions from officials.
One SWB member recalled the politicians’ press conferences earlier that day, “Newsom and Garcetti said those policemen were murderers.” She must have heard a solemn Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti say, “George Floyd was killed before our eyes — and we have every reason to be angry…”
Another member chimed in, “Newsom looked like he was gonna cry at his [press conference].”
There was indeed a catch in the voice of California Governor Gavin Newsom, as he invoked Martin Luther King Jr., who he said reminded people “that we’re all bound together by a web of mutuality, that we’re all in this together.”
“Did you hear the Minnesota governor?” one lady asked. “I think he was being pretty honest.”
Minnesota Governor Tim Walz had made several comments about his state’s looting and unrest from the night before. “We can’t have it because we can’t have it in society,” the governor said, adding, “I refuse to have it take away the attention from the stain we need to be working on.”
“Third degree murder? What’s that time in jail, 25 years?” someone asked, referring to the first charge brought against the ex-policeman who knelt on Mr. Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. When someone added that it wasn’t enough jail time, a lawyer in our group responded, “Even if he’s sentenced, he’ll only serve 12 years.”
Someone else pointed out, “One good thing is that white people are raising their consciousness.”
We all agreed. Former Vice President Joe Biden challenged white Americans that day to fully recognize the persisting unfairness faced by Black Americans. “The pain,” he said, “is too intense for one community to bear alone.”
When we come together, my book club discusses literature as well as how the news of the day affects us. However, SWB has morphed into more than just a monthly gathering.
We have sponsored homeless high school seniors so that they can partake in graduation activities, donated feminine hygiene products to trafficked girls, participated in a sunrise salute to Harriet Tubman, and shared reflections on the losses of Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Ntozake Shange. Pre-coronavirus days, we enjoyed cultural excursions that included going to the opening day of Black movies, attending the biannual Alvin Ailey Dance company performance, and supporting local Black theater. A group of us went to a riveting production of Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play Ruined, about two rape survivors and how they coped in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.
When a fiftysomething member decided it was time to act out her passion, we cheered her on at her comedy club debut. Another member’s daughter, a successful soprano opera singer, enthralled us at her concert hall performance. The sisterhood shows up and offers comfort when suddenly or gradually our parents, husbands, siblings, and children pass away.
Sisters With Books read all five of the late BeBe Moore Campbell’s novels. The author and community activist was known for writing on subjects ranging from race relations to upwardly mobile Black people to mental illness. The book club has a special kinship with Ms. Campbell, and not only because she came to a meeting to discuss one of her books. Like many members in SWB, she was a resident of the View Park neighborhood in Los Angeles. In 2017, some of SWB’s members were instrumental in getting an L.A. County Library renamed the View Park Bebe Moore Campbell Library.
SWB signifies a sort of celebration of the pivotal forces that can exist hundreds of years later when Black American communities come together. Like the Black church and HBCUs that shaped African American life, my book club keeps alight that same spirit of collective combustion.
When I attended that first meeting at Angela’s over two decades ago, who knew I was going to better appreciate the Black womanhood from which I came? Sisters With Books subscribes to an awareness of how we as women fit into this world — and how we as Black women can support one another. Like a river, that understanding runs deeper than anything the book club founders could have ever imagined.
Marsha Lynn Smith is a writer living in Southern California. She is the winner of the 2020 Anne C. Barnhill Prize for Creative Nonfiction. As a Hollywood publicist, she managed publicity for the legendary Stevie Wonder during the time he rallied public and government support to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. In addition to being a member of Sisters With Books, she is a volunteer with WriteGirl, a nonprofit organization empowering teen girls through creative writing, and is a voting member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.