Book club

This summer should have been a summer of stasis. COVID19 grounded us, kept us home, slowed things down and denied us many of our usual summer activities. Instead, I’ve found the summer to be one of growth. The slower pace – sometimes maddening – meant that I had time to spend thinking, reading, and talking in ways I often don’t. (Ok, and also way too much time online, but such is life.) In particular several groups of educators came together to learn and think deeply about racism. Yesterday marked the end of one of these book clubs (we read Kendi’s How To Be an Antiracist) ; Thursday will mark the end of another (we are journaling through Saad’s me and white supremacy). A third, focused on fiction, ended a week ago.

I also spent the summer all too aware of Tre Johnson’s cri de coeur: “When black people are in pain, white people just join a book club.” (His article is excellent.) As a result, I have been reluctant to write about the book clubs, though I have written about my own understanding of racism and anti-racism. I’ve been worried – as I am almost always worried when it comes to anti-racism – that the book clubs are not enough.

But I also *need* to write about this because writing is one way that I make my thoughts concrete. I need to be open with other people about what I’m learning and how it is changing me. I need to be public in my commitments to dismantle our racist society. (And it is racist. If you’ve read this far & you don’t believe that, feel free to get in touch & we can talk.) I need to have on record that I am going to take the racist novels out of our bookroom NOW, that I am going to insist that teachers in our English Dept develop an understanding of why #ownvoices matter and learn to engage those voices thoughtfully, that I am going to speak up about racist actions in my workplace.

More than that, I want to acknowledge that these book clubs are leading to change in myself, my colleagues and our school. Teachers are committing to changing their curriculum – African history will be taught this year, for example – and to speaking up about who gets to take which classes and how discipline is enacted. We are holding each other accountable for making change, and this has come about because of hours of reading and discussing in, yes, book clubs.

After yesterday’s book club ended, I found myself thinking about how our group has moved to action over the course of the summer. The more I thought, the more a poem formed. So here’s a draft for today’s Slice of Life:

We are in
a backyard near the pool,
the white concrete firm under our feet
as we tentatively reach
for cool slices of watermelon.
The pink juice sweetens our understanding.
We talk to each other
for the first time.
No one swims.

We are in
a backyard under the tree,
an empty house beside us
as we lean in.
Surrounded by a privacy fence,
we talk to each other
for hours.
The rain pierces the canopy
that shelters us.

We are in
a backyard in the sun.
The black dog roams between us
as we recognize
racism.
Alarms blare: tornado warning.
The clouds build;
the wind blows;
the rain begins.
We commit to action
and leave to prepare
for school.

Thank you to Ibram X. Kendi for his book How to be an Anti-racist which inspired a summer of discussion, a developing group of allies, and a commitment to action this school year.

9 thoughts on “Book club

  1. I’m glad you wrote about your book clubs. I didn’t commit to any of the anti-racist stuff out there, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in it. I talked daily with a friend who was doing the work and it was hard work. As it should be. It sounds from the tone in your poem that you had a great group of open minded people to talk with. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall.

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  2. This summer has, indeed, been one of growth. The events of the past few months have brought about an awareness that (I believe) has bent the arc of justice just a little bit, but there is so far yet to go. One of the things I struggle with is your “book club” reference. To the best of my ability, I understand where Johnson is coming from, but we all have to start somewhere, and if a book club is it, then so be it. Education is important (or so some of us think). Through literature, some of us “talk to each other for the first time.” It’s a start, and not a bad one.

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  3. If all you do is read antiracist books in your book clubs then you’d deserve criticism, but that’s not all you’re doing. Book clubs are like classes. They help us study and learn. They offer a WSU to forge a path forward, which is what you’re doing. I first began participating in online book clubs via the English Companion Ning in 2010. Those book clubs influenced my teaching and moved me into better pedagogy. This is what you’re doing. These days I read antiracist books on my own and offer others recommendations. I’m not sure about my place in a book club for teachers these days, so I’m slightly jealous of the learning you’ve experienced in these communities. I’m also proud of the changes you’re leading in your school. H/T

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  4. I too have been reading books in clubs to try to figure out my own biases, how to talk about race, and what to do. The reading and talking with others has helped me begin to understand myself and has given me some ideas for how to make change, how to disrupt racist comments and situations, how to talk about race. It has definitely been an important first step, but now I have to DO something.

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  5. Amanda, I think that the first step towards making any change is to become informed and to examine our own biases. Book clubs do that but we can’t stop there. We need to use the experience of learning and exploring anti-blackness, racism, anti racism, etc so that we can figure out what actions to take as anti racist educators. I think if we commit to taking action AND follow through on that, then the book clubs will have been worth it!

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  6. Book clubs are a great starting point and a great place to be educated. I think you have already gone beyond that, and you were beyond “just” a book club before the book clubs began. You DO more than I think any educator I know.

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  7. I love this poem. The backyard is still where I am, but the rain is piercing. I know I’m going to teach American history differently. I will call on the voices that I’ve been reading and listening to all summer, Kendi, Reynolds, Draper, Lewis, Smith, Diangelo, Olue. They will help me pierce the umbrella. I also think your writing is a definite form of action. For example, I didn’t know the quote, “…white people just join a book club.” It hit its mark. Sorry it took so long for me to comment.

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