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Brunch and books: inside ‘Black Girls Book Club’

27 Jan 2017

Last year, I wrote about my decision to embrace more works by writers of colour. Fast forward ten months, and I’ve now fallen in love with Toni Morrison, am still mesmerised by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and am happily continuing to work through my to-read list.

Another goal I had, but always knew would be a little harder, was to join a book club that aligned with my new reading interests. Over the past few years I’ve kept my eye out. Initially, I was just hoping to find a book club with members in my age range (which was hard enough) but trying to find a club which frequently celebrated writers of colour felt like an impossible search.

Then I discovered Black Girls Book Club. Created by best friends Natalie and Melissa, the book club started with a simple tweet calling for anyone interested in attending a “#blackgirlmagic book club brunch”. The promise of magical black women, books, and a good meal is all I need to hear to get me anywhere. It was enough to piqué the interests of what would soon become a growing social following.

Natalie and Melissa first considered starting a book club back in 2014, after their attendance at Stylist Magazine’s first Book Club event. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah was the book of choice, and Adichie herself was in attendance.

In addition to speaking to Adiche and getting signed copies of the book, the fact that the event was mostly attended by black women is what stood out most for Natalie. “Being in a room full of black women and the way that we were speaking and interacting with each other was amazing. I had been to Stylist events before, and usually the audience is made up of mainly white women and I expected the same that time, but that wasn’t the case.”

Melissa added “a lot of events that I go to, it’s obvious that they’re not for me. And they can be still be fun, I enjoy myself and I go home but it felt different. I was on a natural high from just being around black women”.

The event planted the seed for their own book club, and two years later the idea came back to them. After a minute struggling to remember when they officially decided to make the book club happen, the moment came back clearly to Melissa. “We were in one of our favourite restaurants discussing life, making plans, talking about what we’d been reading and we just thought, ‘imagine if we did this in a larger setting?’ We didn’t want to do something in a pub or library, but something nicer that felt special. Although it’s a book club, we wanted it to be more than that.”

Before they even explained it to me, and from just getting to know them, it’s been clear to see how Natalie and Melissa have embedded their personalities into the BGBC brand, and that’s what has attributed to its success. They began their shared love affair with books back in school with the classic Alice Walker novel, The Color Purple, and although they continued swapping and sharing their most-recent reads, as they grew up together other shared passions such as beauty, food – and yes, cocktails – have helped to shape their friendship.

The official event name Black Girls Book Club Presents: Black Girls Are Magic Brunchhinted at glamour and extravagance, but I definitely didn’t anticipate what the event had in store. From the personalised notes, beautifully packaged copy of the book in focus (still inspired by the event where they saw her, it was Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Americanah), amazing gift bags and flawless attention to detail, it was hard to believe that this was the book clubs first event.

When I, like many others, complimented Natalie and Melissa on the high quality of the event, Melissa explained why it was so important to them. “I wanted black women to come into that room and feel important, because that’s what I’d do for my friends. I’d do that for my sister. I’d do that for my mother or my grandmother. I’ve been to so many events where the idea of blackness and unity is used because they know people want to support and that’s been taken advantage of. They feel like the event can start late and because we’re black we’ll expect it, so it was important to us that the standard was incredibly high because no one has the right to tell me that as black women we don’t deserve that. To have an event, feel fantastic and drink mimosas.”

Regardless of how well a room is presented, or what guests are offered upon arrival, the main element of any event is the vibe. Unlike a party or club night, at a book club there’s no loud music to fill awkward silences or excessive alcohol to shake the nerves, so the need for a comfortable setting was crucial. Especially with a book like Americanah, which rapidly moves between themes of identity, race, mental health and emigration with the turn of each page, the whole discussion could’ve been stifled and wasted had the energy in the room been off. Thankfully, it really wasn’t.

There was no awkward warming up period where we stared down into our phones waiting for things to get started. From the moment I arrived, it seemed like everyone was eager to chat, and not just about the book.

For Melissa, realising that they’d successfully created an environment of comfort was a huge moment. “Everyone was just talking. I just stood there for about five minutes watching everyone, that moment for me was the best thing. I’ve gone to events before where people come on their own, they don’t know where to go, or where to sit and you feel really awkward. A lot of people came by themselves and it didn’t matter.”

During the group discussion we moved through a range of themes, some expected and others more personal, that inspired waves of new questions and viewpoints. Only a little while before we had been dining together in this beautiful room, getting to know each other and enjoying the buzz, but at that point in the event, gathered together in a circle, I realised just how comfortable we’d gotten with each other throughout the duration of the day.

Following their hugely successful first event, Black Girls Book Club has continued to grow and their second event, sold out in four minutes. We can expect an exploration of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a bigger venue and, despite requests that the event be opened up to them, no men!

I asked Natalie and Melissa about the best feedback they’d received, and instead of choosing from one of the many tweets praising their first event, Natalie highlighted the friendships they’ve made as the greatest outcome.

“I can call someone up from the brunch who I’ve spoken to on Twitter and have a conversation. Being able to go into my phone and have five to ten girls that I can reach out to is amazing.”

And there it is. Although a very-welcome occasion to revel in our love of books, sip nice drinks and enjoy great food, at its core the Black Girls Book Club is a platform for us to join together and unify – not only in admiration of the talented writers we look up to – but also in celebration of each other. The beautiful settings and extra touches are simple reminders that regardless of the reason or occasion, our union is always worthy of celebration at the highest level.