For more than two centuries, book clubs have been a haven for Black people to share literary arts and radical ideas. Black women formed these groups before the Civil War in response to the lack of educational opportunities. These spaces carried over into the civil rights and second-wave feminist movements, where Black people developed social justice crusades and introduced each other—and the world—to Black writers. Today, Black-led book clubs are still refuges for leisure and community building, as seen with popular groups like Well-Read Black Girl and Noname Book Club.
Ron Kavanaugh, literary activist and founder of the Literary Freedom Project, has spent about 20 years making Black literature accessible to communities in the South Bronx. He created the first website dedicated to Black lit, Mosaic Literary Magazine, publishing future Pulitzer Prize winners such as Colson Whitehead and Tyehimba Jess early in their careers. Since then, Mosaic has evolved into the three arms of the Literary Freedom Project: an educational resource, an adult book club, One Book One Bronx; and the annual Mosaic Literary Conference for parents and educators.
Today, at least 80 readers from around the country log into One Book One Bronx’s weekly book club meetups on Zoom, discussing the works of authors who reflect the South Bronx, from Dhalma Llanos-Figueroa’s “Daughters of the Stone” to Ernesto Quiñonez’s “Bodega Dreams.” Through literature, Black and Latinx women, who make up the majority of members, share their stories, empower each other and learn to advocate for better curricula in their children’s schools. Colorlines spoke with Kavanaugh to discuss One Book One Bronx’s mission to make Black literature accessible in Black neighborhoods.
Why is it necessary to develop a community around reading?
We don’t prioritize [the arts in our lives], but when we make room, there is social empowerment and agency that we build around our thinking process.
There are themes in fiction and poetry that one may consider universal: death, love and family. I’ve noticed, when books are read by Black authors, they tend to be seen as being only about race.
We’re focused on all subject matter [at One Book One Bronx]. There might be a book about mental illness or generational issues as far as how people migrate to this country, or from the South to the North. Many people have a migration story. We don’t have to stick with someone who came from Ireland and made their way here in America.
What books are you reading now?
When the pandemic started, and [then] the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we decided to read “All About Love” by bell hooks. People needed a space to come together and talk about love and the lack of love that’s going on [and] the brutality we’re witnessing almost every day.
You have a lot of programming on youth education. What do you see as the pitfalls of traditional literature education in schools?
The main pitfall is that there is a set syllabus that all teachers are encouraged to follow [the “Common Core”]. When we have our book club, we are purposeful about reading literature by writers of the African diaspora. We want parents to then go back into their [kids’] classrooms, and ask teachers and administrators to broaden the scope of books that they read. We started the Mosaic Literary Conference to have a space for educators as well as parents to come together; listen to panels; and attend workshops that focus on social and criminal justice and women’s empowerment. We create lesson plans right before the conference with prompts and [syllabi] on how teachers can connect students to different books [and] incorporate [them] into the current curriculum. What we’re also trying to do is give educators a wider breadth of materials for them to use in the classroom.
The book club seems like another way to empower parents to be more involved in their kids’ schools.
Oftentimes, parents don’t know. They are in their bubble and accepting what the teachers are sending home. … They don’t have the tools to question what the kids are reading or what other books teachers and students can use.
One of your lesson plans centers Kalief Browder, a young Black man who took his life after he was held in solitary confinement [pretrial] at Rikers Island. How did you develop this?
We had to look at mental illness and what happens when people enter the prison system and come out with no support system. That lesson plan refers to articles in the New York Times. It focused on the biography produced by Jay-Z on Kalief Browder. It also included Ava Duvernay’s documentary, “Thirteenth,” on the 13th Amendment, which supposedly freed slaves. We’re trying to think broadly when we create these lesson plans for educators to include, not only just books but also other current event articles and films.
There’s a lot going on right now in America. How is it shaping your mission as you reach the final stretch of 2020?
We’re more than 20 years in, and we’ve been consistent about trying to fight injustice and speak truth to power and trying to find a space for us. We’re still a nonprofit: we have an active board; pay facilitators; meet in person [and Zoom] and buy books for everyone. We don’t want there to be any barriers to join us and take part in our programs. The conference and book club is free. We have to provide this open space just to be a part of conversations.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
catherine is a writer from Miami living in New York, and a former editorial assistant at Colorlines.