When her 6th-grade reading curriculum created the overwhelming combined feeling of underrepresentation and boredom, an 11-year-old New Jersey native by the name of Marley Dias received national acclaim when she took matters into her own hands. She was tired of reading about “White boys and their dogs,” she told Larry Wilmore on The Nightly Show. So, she decided to create a book drive called “1000 Black Girl Books.” With the book drive, she was able to help herself and other young black girls rediscover reading and realize that they too had the right to be authors and protagonists in important narratives.
A similar impetus was felt by seniors Kelsie Thorne (president), Melissa James (treasurer) and Alice Saladino (historian), when they decided to create the first Black book club on campus called PuBLACations. The club meets every other Tuesday at 8 P.M. in the Paul Robeson Cultural Center on Busch campus. The discussions are led by parliamentarian Sean Mcjunkins who helps the executive board come up with a focus for the conversation and facilitates the discussions. During the dialogue, everyone is given a PDF copy of the reading so everyone can participate, and food is served as well.
“We wanted to read more books by black authors…we wanted to be more well-versed in their literature, more well-versed in our own history,” said Melissa James
At first the plan was to meet up informally as friends and discuss books by Black authors, but creating the club added an extra layer of incentive for the founders to actually engage and process the readings despite their busy schedules. Kelsie Thorne noted that she felt a distinct gap in her knowledge when it came to Black authors and reasoned that if she felt this way then maybe there were other students who felt the same and who had the same desire to learn more.
The “sharing is caring” spirit was palpable among the founders. They were all aware of the power of reading, but coming together to discuss, debate, and perhaps even argue as a community, added another level of value to the text. Alice Saladino feels that the very nature of meeting outside of the classroom promotes questions that would not typically be raised in an academic space and thus enriches the conversation.
“Too often we feel that we have to assimilate our ideals, our values and our moral when we’re in white spaces because we don’t want to be seen as radical…but what’s radical about equality and justice?” Asked Melissa James
The fact that this is indeed a Black-centered book club affords the group the ability to approach the readings from a personal standpoint. Students who identify as Black can use their personal experiences to interpret the text and still feel that their thoughts are validated. The book club also allows Black students to see, through the text, the complexity of the Black experience in America and throughout the world.
“It’s about Black lives; it’s about our lives, and how all Black lives are different and similar and beautiful,” said Kelsie Thorne
The first book that sparked the interest of the group was Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric.” The group found merit in Rankine’s book on three levels. The first was because the collection of poems and vignettes was short and sweet, and the second attraction was the text’s ability to still provide ample fodder for great discussions surrounding contemporary relevant themes in the Black community. The third reason was that the book also aligned itself with one of the goals of the group, which was to emphasize Black poetry; not to mention the heart-wrenching photos included throughout the work.
“Books are not only documentation of what’s happening right now...they’re also a gift to the present,” said Alice Saladino.
The founders, like 11-year-old Marley Dias, feel that the eurocentric approach to reading that most public school curriculums use, can have a damaging effect on the inclination of young black readers to continue reading. Lack of representation, whether through movies or books, has a marginalizing effect on young adults. The founders of PuBLACations agree that reading books by Black authors at a young age is vital to the sense of self-worth in a Black child.
“It shouldn’t take a young [Black] woman coming to college to fall in love with herself,” Kelsie Thorne noted.
“The importance of reading is the ability to teach yourself…and it is also important to go out of your way to discover [books] by authors that look like you,” said Melissa James.
Regarding the importance of reading and analyzing Black books in today’s day and age, the founders felt that one of the most important things to note is the relevancy of the texts. Thorne stated that novels published over 50 years ago still ring true in the ears of young Black readers. The connections that one can make between examples from a book written on the cusps of the Civil Rights Movement and the realities of the Black Lives Matter Movement today are both enlightening and saddening to make. James added that in order to liberate one’s mind, one must read; one must be aware.
“It might be known as a Black book club, but it is not only open to black people. That would be a disservice to ourselves, and divisive. But we’re unapologetically Black” Kelsie Thorne explained.
“Books will never be obsolete,” said Alice Saladino.