The Community for Understanding and Hope (CFUH) Book Group, which I often call the Diversity Book Club on this blog and a friend of mine calls “Joy’s Radical Book Club,” completes another year this month. We’ve been reading books about race in America since the summer of 2008, after a shooting tragedy in our community of Kirkwood, Missouri. It’s been a few months since I totaled our number but we must be approaching 70 books by now.
I’m way behind on book reviews, so I thought that today I’d do a round-up post of the books we’ve read for book club. Next week, I’ll plan to complete a round-up post of other books.
Race, Place, and Suburban Policing: Too Close for Comfort by Andrea S. Boyles. We chose this book by acclamation and made it our first book of the year, just a few months after it was published. We don’t usually read scholarly books, but this one was about our community and related to the same history that led to to our book club. The author showed up for our meeting and we had a larger than usual turn-out from Meacham Park, the historically black neighborhood of Kirkwood that was studied for this research. I learned things from this book and that discussion that had never been clear before, even though I live only a few miles away.
Dr. Boyles performed extensive interviews about police interactions in Meacham Park. She said that people volunteered the bad stuff. She had to push to get positive stories about police, but many people had them. From the positive stories, I learned that better police-community relations seem very doable. Two big factors are that the police come quickly when called and that they are nice — in other words, that police act in their neighborhood the same way that they do in mine.
Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor’s Reflections on Race and Medicine by Damon Tweedy. This was another newly published book at the time that we read it. Some of our members were able to attend a talk by Dr. Tweedy when he came through St. Louis to promote this book and said that he was as entertaining and informative in person as he was in the book. The book group’s consensus was that Black Man in a White Coat was remarkably self-revelatory and honest — for anyone, really, but we’re not used to someone in the medical profession being so open about themselves or about the wonders and pitfalls of the field. This was our first book that covered health and race in any detail and was particularly helpful because we have a couple of people employed in the medical field who were able to add depth and a local flavor to our discussion.
Fire in Beulah by Rilla Askew. Our book group mostly reads nonfiction so it’s always a treat when we put a good novel on the list. Historical novels can be particularly helpful in teaching us about the history that we weren’t taught in school. In this case, we learned about what is sometimes called “Black Wall Street” — the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma that had a flourishing black community in the early 1900s, complete with wealthy business owners. The whole neighborhood was razed in a few days by white mob violence, leaving scores of residents dead.
That grim history makes the book club consensus on this book seem odd — it’s beautiful! Check it out if you love good writing and characters portrayed with care and distinction.
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. Poetry was a new experience for our book group. With a good grounding in black literature, we enjoyed metaphors and allusions that others might miss. But, it doesn’t really matter, any reader will benefit from the depth of expression and appreciate the artistry of this book of poems, essays, and images.
Soul Catcher by Michael C. White. This was the only book we read this year that I didn’t like. But, it helped me have this thought: white people believe that we only need to study history to write historical novels that involve race, but we’re wrong about that. If we don’t understand contemporary thought on race, we’ll get the story wrong. In this case, for me, the novel came across as a fetish fantasy — all wild Native American women and healing African American women, there for no purpose but to transform the man.
March: Book One and Book Two by John Lewis. Another new format for the book group — a memoir of Congressman John Lewis presented in graphic novel style. For some of the group, this was their first exposure to that. I don’t read graphic novels, but I do get a kick out of nonfiction presented in this way, including the memoirs by Lucy Knisley. The first two volumes of March tell the story of John Lewis’ childhood and young adulthood with an exciting conclusion at the March on Washington in 1963. We worried whether something told in a comic book format could possibly have enough depth to keep our book club talking for ninety minutes. It did! And, we could have gone much longer.
March: Book Three just came out this month. So, it’s a good thing that I’m so behind on my book reviews — this reminded me to request the new one from the library.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Another novel, this one contemporary and just as enlightening in its own way as Fire in Beulah. I liked the vast majority of the books we read this year, and it’s hard to choose a favorite among them, but for sheer can’t-put-it-down readability, Americanah tops my list. We had a world-hopping discussion about what it means to be black in America, England, and Nigeria plus many other topics about modern life.
If you live in the St. Louis area, the CFUH Book Group loves new members. Send me an email and I’ll get you the details. I’m on yahoo.com and use joyweesemoll as my username. Our September meeting is the most fun one of the year — we host a pot luck supper and choose good books over good food while engaged in good conversation.