BookBrowse interviews The Zoom Black Girls' Book Club about all aspects of their book club.

Book Club Interviews

The Zoom Black Girls' Book Club

Vicki Moore, founder of the Zoom Black Girls' Book Club tells us why she felt the pandemic was the perfect time to form her new book club

How did your group get started? 

Our book club began in May 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Actually, the pandemic was the motivating factor. All of our members live in major urban areas that experienced significant shutdowns beginning in March. Initially everyone was in a state of shock, reeling from the sudden shift from 100 to 0 miles per hour we all experienced in our lives. At first, we were consumed by questions related to our own and society's survival, such as were we and everyone we knew going to die, were we destined to end up alone in a hospital on a ventilator, were we going to have enough toilet paper, were we going to go hungry, and so on.

After the initial shock wore off and we realized we would be in this state of limbo for quite some time, we began to feel a desire to use the time in "lockdown" to do certain things we had not found time to do when we were "free." This included the desire to get back to reading books, a once cherished activity which had fallen by the wayside as our lives became increasingly hectic. As the pandemic-created isolation persisted, I began to focus on what I could do that would be uplifting and enriching to combat the negativity that characterizes 2020.

How did the pandemic affect your relationship with books? I think some people initially found reading very difficult (and some still do) while others took comfort in it.

I was comforted by the existence of my personal library, and began immersing myself in my art and interior design books, which provided a much-needed diversion from the challenges of the pandemic and the suffering so many were experiencing. However, as time went on, I felt an increasing sense of loneliness, yet when I reached out to friends by phone or social media, much of the interaction was consumed by discussing the terrible state of affairs. As a coping mechanism, to support my mental and emotional health, I started focusing on reading books, as opposed to just perusing them. Immersing myself in a good book has always been an escape for me, from problems or to forestall boredom, as well as a way to relax, enter another existence, provoke thought, and to soar.

I love the idea of soaring with a good book! So how did your own focus on reading lead to the formation of the group?

I have one friend with whom I frequently enjoy discussing books we have read. However, we have always done so in a cursory manner, which I find regrettable. I also began to regret that my friends are spread around the U.S., as a result of my own peripatetic lifestyle. This had not been a problem when I was free to travel, but the pandemic changed that. I thought about the friends I was missing who shared similar interests, especially a love of reading, and decided to invite them to join the Zoom Black Girls' Book Club, a literal name that is self-descriptive.

It sounds like the group came together naturally, or were there hurdles? 

It did require some persistence on my part. One person said she was not a big reader, other than of technical work-related materials, which I told her would absolutely NOT be our focus. She agreed to give it a try, but alas, literature turned out not to be her thing, and she dropped out after the first meeting. A second invitee prefers to listen to audio books, so I convinced her to join by indicating most of our selections will likely be available in that form. Another invitee found her work situation too demanding, so she dropped out before our first meeting. Others had to be convinced a book club is not a college literature class, no one will be graded on their participation or whether they read the book. Organizing the six-person book club reminded me of the phrase, "herding cats."

That does sound like quite an undertaking. Well done persisting! You've now got six members, where did you find the others?

I originally invited five friends, based in California and the Washington, DC metropolitan area, to join. Of the original six, four remain, and two original members invited like-minded women I did not know to join. The current membership feels perfect and I am thankful to have met two amazing new women.

I'm so glad to hear that. How do you plan and organize your meetings?

The existence of this book club is made possible by the relatively recent rise of virtual platforms for gathering, such as Zoom. We meet once a month and each member is given the opportunity to select a book, as well as host the discussion in the manner she wishes. Sometimes character lists or discussion points are distributed in advance.

Is there something in particular that makes your group special to you?

The club is a response to the many challenges the coronavirus pandemic has brought to the African American community, as well as the fact that many of the books our members want to read now are about the African American experience. I felt a book club would likely succeed if we had members who come from similar backgrounds, particularly with regard to race, gender and age. Our members are all African American women, including mothers, a psychologist, two writers, an independent business owner and two attorneys. Many pre-existing relationships between members have endured in excess of 40 years. 

Tell us about the sorts of books you read, and how you pick them.

Thus far, we have focused on a memoir and works of fiction by African American writers, although we are open to reading books by other voices in the future, as well as poetry, historical narratives, political and social commentary and analysis, and biographies. To date, we have read three amazing books and had stimulating, uplifting, joyful discussions.

So, what have you read so far?

We selected our first title, Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward, just weeks before George Floyd's death changed America. By the time our first club meeting occurred, the selection seemed eerily prescient, and presented the opportunity to discuss how America fails African American males within the context of a skillfully written memoir.

Our second selection was The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, a poignant novel which, through the exploration of a single large family, focuses on many of the issues plaguing African Americans today.

For balance, we consciously decided to read a work by a Black male writer for our third entry. I think it is accurate to say Deacon King Kong by James McBride was a challenge for most of us to read! For me it brought back memories of reading satirical literature in college and hating it. Others said they would not have finished the book but for the club meeting.

That does sound like a challenge!

And yet, I think most of us gained a great appreciation for this amazing book as a result of the discussion. Our participation required us to really think about, formulate and articulate what McBride's writing represents, which we found through our discussion was much deeper than what was presented on the surface. Our club meetings typically last two to three hours, yet some of us found ourselves hours later continuing to engage via text messaging about "Sportcoat" and other characters and themes we did not discuss during book club hours. This was a very stimulating book and it felt like the characters became a part of us, which is pretty amazing! Brit Bennett's The Vanishing Half is next on our list. 

What do you and the other members appreciate most about your book club?

We feel that our selections thus far have been enriching. In addition to being high quality literature, they provided the basis for lively, heartfelt discussions about the stories and characters, as well as about current events, our own lived experiences, and those of our families and community.

Have you found any common themes running through your books and discussions?

The Great Migration of African Americans from the southern United States has been a common thread throughout. I also feel like members are experiencing personal growth by facilitating our discussions and responding to questions and comments in a really thoughtful and genuine manner. Beyond the books we read, we share information about other books, author interviews, and the like. Within the context of our book club, I have learned things about people I have known for 30 to 40 years, resulting in deeper bonds and friendships. What began as a way to foster social interaction, and a diversion from this awful pandemic, has blossomed into something more lasting and valuable, facilitated by the shared experience of reading a wonderful book. 

I am so glad. I hear time again from book club members that they love learning from both the books and the people in their group, and that their book club gives them the opportunity to get to know people at a depth that often doesn't happen during regular social interactions. It is great to hear you describe exactly this happening so early in the life of your book club.

Do you have any tips for others who want to start their own book clubs?

Limit membership to a manageable number of readers so everyone has the opportunity to share and make sure people have enough in common to facilitate smooth functioning of the club. Encourage members to share responsibility for choosing books and leading discussions, and limit consultation of outside sources so as to bring original thoughts to the discussion. 

Your last point is very interesting. I know that some people feel that they should thoroughly research the book before their group's meeting. But I can see that there is a line between background reading to understand more about the book's context and reading so as to absorb other people's opinions. I think that some people might find your policy rather liberating.

Thank you, Vicki. It has been so interesting to chat with you about your group. I hope that the Zoom Black Girls' Book Club continues to read and grow together for many years to come. In a couple of years' time when the pandemic is over and you've got a few dozen books under your belt, I hope you'll come back and tell us how the group is getting on

-- Davina Morgan-Witts, BookBrowse Publisher

© September 2020.

If you feel that your book group has something unique to offer, and you would like to tell others about it, please contact us with brief details, and maybe we can feature you in the future.

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