Book Clubs Become Touchstone for Black Women

Callie Crossley describes the monthly gatherings as if she were reviewing a crackling good novel: always "a rich experience ... sometimes amazing ... with fabulous discussions."

Ms. Crossley is an enthusiastic member of the Literary Sisters, a group of 14 black women who come together once a month in a living room in Boston to discuss books by black authors.

Launched 10 years ago, the Literary Sisters predates the current spotlight being thrown on the rising popularity of book reading groups throughout United States.

Ethnic or not, more groups are gathering these days on the Internet, in homes, bookstores, community buildings and campuses across the US. Participants say in an age of cold technology and hot businesses, they want intellectual warmth and old-fashioned social interaction.

Notably visible among the many black women's groups is Go On Girl, a group in New York that started in l991 and now sends out a national newsletter to members and publishers. TV's Oprah Winfrey, with her eagerly awaited book selections and author interviews, has helped bring more visibility to book discussions.

But many black women's groups have been around for years. Their discussions offer black women an understanding of the dynamics of race relations, insights into black history, and plenty of personal support and friendship.

And they eat well too. "That is a major requirement of membership," laughs Crossley. She is a producer for ABC's 20/20 television show and often plans her schedule to not miss a gathering of the Sisters.

"Sometimes our discussions go way on through the meal," she says of the group that meets the first Sunday of every month from 3 to 6 p.m. An elaborate meal is usually prepared by the hostess.

For black women in particular, the book groups can provide a separate and needed touchstone. It is a chance to discuss ideas, but the value of being together goes deeper.

"Most of us lead very integrated existences," says Karen Grigsby Gates, a member of Babes on Books in Los Angeles. "We were feeling that we hadn't been able to keep in touch in a meaningful way with black girlfriends because we were ethnically isolated in the workplace," she says. "So this was a way to ... have some sistership."

Many of the women in the Los Angeles group have front-line experiences with integration and discrimination. "Some of us have been the first and only black people to do this or that, or get bused somewhere,"says Ms. Grisby Gates, who writes editorials for the Los Angeles Times and is a commentator on National Public Radio.

"We're used to it," she says, "but in some ways a little tired of it because you always end up being a representative of the Negroes. What we missed was the chance to touch base with women on a defined and regular basis."

Fun is also an ingredient. A member of Babes on Books, a potter, made a mug for each member depicting a black flapper seated on a big stack of books. "We got very lofty when we were thinking of a name," says Grisby Gates, "and one of the women's husbands saw a list of tongue-in-cheek names. He circled 'Babes on Books' and said, 'Oh, be that one.' "

Almost all members develop a fierce appreciation for the experience of being together. Miss a meeting? Unthinkable.

"I so look forward to it each month," says Carmen Fields, director of communications for United Way in Boston, and a member of Literary Sisters as well as another racially mixed reading group. "As sensitive as I like to consider myself," she says, "I love the other points of view, something you don't get when you read a book alone."

The groups are usually small, with 12 to 14 women the ideal number. Typically, one member serves as the moderator. There are minimal rules, but miss four discussions in the Literary Sisters, for example, and a member is disinvited.

"We read only black authors," says Crossley, "and select all the books in May so we know what to read through December. We keep April open to meet with men and pick a book they would be interested in."

They read fiction and nonfiction. Recent books included "Krik? Krac," by Haitian author Edwidge Danticat (SoHo Publishers), "Texaco," by Patrick Chamoiseau (Pantheon), "The Wedding," by Dorothy West (Anchor), and "Zenzele: A Letter for My Daughter," by J. Nozipo Mariare (Bantam).

Babes on Books reads mostly black authors, but includes others. Occasionally, conversation drifts from the books, bringing criticism from some members who have invested so much time in reading the books.

"We read David Guterson's 'Snow Falling on Cedars,' " says Grisby Gates, "and we talked for two hours about how the heroine ended up marrying a man who wasn't a soul mate but made a good marriage partner. Can you be married to your soul mate? Maybe your soul mate is really your sister or best friend? It was great for two hours."

Because Crossley travels widely for her job, she expresses amazement that she meets so many people who belong to groups. "It's widespread," she says, "and people are intense about it. I think they are looking for space to be themselves, a way to relax and yet feel you are getting stimulation. It's just a wonderful experience."

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