“Who already knew the difference between voodoo and hoodoo?”
So begins the discussion at the African American Women Writers Book Club. Its members, a dozen women ranging in age from 30 to 70, have grabbed coffee and dessert from the adjoining Starbucks and made their way through the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Alpharetta to their table in the Arts section. As they slip into seats, the chatter is about work and children and whether they liked Colored Sugar Water by Venise Berry, this month’s selection. At 7 p.m. sharp, discussion leader Marian Palmore’s question halts the socializing for the next two hours, as it has, in this very place, for the past 18 years.
Lorraine Stallings, the only remaining founding member, recalls the group’s first meeting, in 1995. “We ironed out logistics, [that it would be] open to all, and most crucially, the ethos of the club, which was to encourage African American women writers, a goal the book club’s name would reflect,” she says.
Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale was the group’s first book. Recent reads include the memoir The Grace of Silence by NPR commentator Michele Norris, the risqué novel The Sexy Part of the Bible by Kola Boof, and Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America by Melissa V. Harris-Perry.
As Harris-Perry’s title suggests, the club doesn’t shy away from works that take a hard look at race relations. Nor does it exclude male authors. Barack Obama, before he was president, opened that door. “We felt it was important to discuss the memoirs of the then presidential candidate,” says member S. Claudia Lang Pitts. Since then the club has read works by local novelists Nathan McCall (Them) and Daniel Black (Perfect Peace) and journalist John Blake (Children of the Movement), all of whom have been invited to speak and sign books.
The club now also reads works by white female authors that deal with race. “We loved Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a book we feel is a vital and necessary contribution to African American history,” says Pitts.
Like the books read, membership itself has become more diverse over the years. There have been black men, an Indian man raised in South America, and whites. Camaraderie and a welcoming attitude have been the great constant.
Seven years ago, I happened to be in the bookstore when I heard an announcement that the meeting was about to commence. I hurried over, nervous about what to expect, and blurted out, “I’m not African-American.” (I am a Pakistani-American.) Amid good-natured laughter, there were invitations to sit down and join the discussion, even though I had not read the book. I’ve been a member ever since.
The group, which will hold an 18th-anniversary celebration on Saturday, September 14, in the store, boasts five members of 15 years’ standing or more: Stallings, Pitts, Palmore, Deloris Davis and Mary Wade. Many members credit the club’s longevity to its fixed meeting time and place, one that doesn’t require members to act as hosts. The ongoing support of the Barnes & Noble staff has thus been crucial, especially Assistant Manager Xandra Matthews Willis and Community Relations Coordinator Linda Mote, who worked with club founder Stephanie Gowdy. The relationship is such that club members recently attended a store staff member’s wedding, which took place in the store.
The club also arranges outings. Members attend the annual Tea & Hat Show at the Archibald Smith Plantation Home in Roswell during African American History Month, and they watch movies of books they’ve read, such as The Help. Most recently they went to the Alliance Theatre to see “What I Learned in Paris” by Atlanta author and playwright Pearl Cleage. Cleage will speak at the club’s anniversary tea.
Authors and book clubs, it appears, make up a mutual admiration society. Says best-selling author Kimberla Lawson Roby, “The incredible support they give to all authors is invaluable, and they certainly make our writing careers possible and worthwhile.”
The public is invited to the club’s anniversary celebration at 2 p.m. Saturday, September 14, at Barnes & Noble, 7660 North Point Parkway, Alpharetta. Think you might like to join? Come to a meeting, held every last Tuesday of the month.