The stories we tell ourselves stick with us, the words and pictures imprinted on our spirit.
We move through life with these tales, allowing them to push and pull us in different directions.
In Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book, “The Water Dancer,” storytelling, memory, and passing on our truths is our power. A superpower that helps liberate slaves.
In one passage, the character of Harriet Tubman says, “For memory is the chariot and memory is the way, and memory is bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom.”
In his reimagination of the Underground Railroad, there is both the network working to help enslaved people escape to freedom as well as the magic of conduction held by a few.
That magic is sparked by stories. They are literally transported by telling their stories.
In Boston, more and more groups are gathering to explore these kinds of stories and talk about how black literature moves them in thought, spirit, and action.
These aren’t your traditional book clubs. There’s a pop-up shop, a monthly study hall, and a book nook in a bar, too.
Clarrissa Egerton, who runs Frugal Bookstore with her husband and cofounder Leonard, says there’s been a little boom at the Roxbury bookstore in the past couple of years.
Black book lovers are not a new phenomenon. Egerton says the surge in general indie bookstore support comes in response to fallen brick-and-mortar stores and Amazon discounts.
But for black businesses, particularly black bookstores, there’s a cultural factor, too.
“With the passing of so many greats, Maya Angelou and Nelson Mandela and more recently Toni Morrison, we don’t want our greats to be lost,” she says. “We also want to recognize our talent beyond the most notable. There’s a new generation of talent coming through that hasn’t always been celebrated. With the rise of Black Lives Matter, there’s a resurgence of this need and want to buy and support black. Black people are showing up and showing out and gathering around their love of literature. It’s about community and togetherness.”
Too often in America, people of color and marginalized people are left out of books. Our histories and memories manipulated, scant, and distorted.
For us, it is a mix of historical research and narrative, memoir and fiction, that so often fuels the archive of the black American experience. We count on the likes of James Baldwin and Toni Morrison and Frederick Douglass and Octavia Butler to capture our histories and inform our futures.
Schools don’t always get the job done. Mainstream bookstores often relegate us to a small section. And then, there’s the hurdle of access and engagement.
Print Ain’t Dead aims to create connections between readers of color and LGBTQ+ readers through books centered on their experiences.
Founded a year ago by Arielle Gray and Cierra Peters, Print Ain’t Dead is a pop-up shop appearing in a bike store, galleries, museums, and at festivals. The two buy books, new and old, and sell them for $2 to $10 to ensure everyone has access to books for people of color.
They source from thrift stores and their own collection. Papercuts in Jamaica Plain gives them uncorrected proofs and old books, too. The selections include titles like “Queenie” by Candice Carty-Williams and Ntozake Shange’s “Liliane.”
Last month, they opened a reading lounge and bookstore in the Castledrone art galleries and studios in Hyde Park. Open noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays, the point is to create a space for intentional weekly engagement.
“We want to invite people of color in with no pressure to buy and offer a space to reflect, think, and interact with the works outside of a transactional experience,” says Gray, 28, a writer and artist.
The space is intimate and ethereal with natural light and leafy plants. There’s a rattan chair, a staircase, and puff pillows to sit on. Under the stairs, a cozy reading seat is the perfect spot to get lost in pages.
Sure, you can read for free at the library. But you can’t mark up the books or have lively conversations. Carving out a communal space isn’t easy.
“Space is hard in Boston,” says Peters, 26, an interdisciplinary artist. “We want to build relationships and have conversations. Some of these books are literally our books that we’ve lived with in our homes and have sentimental connection [to]. Some of these books are books people wouldn’t necessarily have access to outside of academia. A deep part of the curation is who is having these conversations.”
Print Ain’t Dead aims to start holding events and dinners around black literature and art. They are in the process of building a digital library cloud and public art component and potentially collaborate with The Free Black Women’s Library, an interactive black feminist mobile trading library that started in New York in 2015. Now it’s in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta.
Another collaborator: Jovonna Jones. Last May, she launched the Black Studies Reading Room.
Every month, dozens of black lit and art lovers meet her upstairs at Trident Booksellers. Print Ain’t Dead is a regular.
The collective started with 2019 MacArthur Fellow and scholar Saidiya Hartman’s “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments.” Hartman builds narratives around deep historical research in a method she calls critical fabulation to explore black American life that has been omitted from the archive.
For Jones, filling in those blanks is what is driving black readers to come together in love.
“From 2012 to now, everything has felt so violent, so urgent, and so overwhelming,” says Jones, 26, a PhD candidate in African and African-American studies at Harvard. “Something about reading right now and reading together forces us to be slow and deliberate and tender. It’s something I need and I crave. Sharing with other people is hard to come by right now, and these reading spaces are sacred.”
Jones is not alone in her hunger.
In New York, Glory Edim started Well-Read Black Girl as a digital community centering the stories of black female and nonbinary writers. The Instagram account has more than 250,000 followers. Now there are physical book club meetings, a published anthology, chapters across the country, and next month, the third annual festival.
Earlier this summer, Chicago rapper and poet Noname launched a book club to highlight writers of color and writers within the LGBTQ+ community. On Twitter, there are already 45,000 followers.
Reading is a community exercise, whether the community is on Twitter, Instagram — or at a bar.
Last year, when District 7 Tavern opened in Roxbury, co-owner Arianna Waldron knew they were inheriting a community gem. It’s the site of the historic Sonny Walker’s, one of the first black-owned taverns in Boston. But how would they start new traditions?
It started with a book nook — a take a book, leave a book deal. And by January, a few regulars asked to start a District 7 book club, and it’s been on ever since.
Lanelle Sneed, along with Latoya Sanderon, are the customers who started the club.
For them, it was about sisterhood, buying black (they get their books at Frugal), and being able to drink and think over the likes of Michelle Obama’s “Becoming.”
“It’s different to do it at a bar,” Sneed, 35, says. “It destigmatizes bars. Why can’t we have a cocktail and enjoy reading? It’s a safe space, and it’s grown into this amazing group of women, and we all added our own piece to it and made it our own.”
Waldron says there is power in the reading, but also in those who see the club together.
“There is something different when you see yourself in what you’re reading,” says Waldron, 34. “We are taking up this space and it’s permeating more into our consciousness.”
As black folk come together in public spaces and gather around books, they don’t just grow themselves. They push the American narrative forward.
“The jump is done by the power of the story,” Harriet says of Coates’s “The Water Dancer.”
“It pulls from our particular histories, on each of our loves and all of our losses. All of that feeling is called up, and on the strength of our remembrances, we are moved.”
For far too long, we’ve accepted the half-told stories public schools tell us about ourselves. Not all of us were encouraged to dig beyond the one or two shelves of black books.
We’re telling our stories, now. We’re finding them. We’re sharing them. Through the power of the story, we don’t see only a suffering slave. We see our black, brilliant, and beautiful selves.