Interview: Creators of RWB

reading while black

Thanks to modern technology, information is literally at our fingertips. Any question you have can be solved in 10 seconds or less using the world wide web. We’ve become an isolated society because we don’t rely on each other for info, we go directly to the Internet. When I was younger, I had to go to a library to read a book. I had to interact with other people, even if it was just a clerk or another student looking for a similar title. Now, we’re able to read our favorite books on our mobile devices- erasing the need to come in contact with anyone. Two millennials are looking to change how we interact with each other by combining literature and technology. The Reading While Black Book Club was born from an idea on Twitter and has manifested into one of the best literary clubs for Black people. The founders, Jason and Shakirra are from Mobile, Alabama. I got the chance to chat with them to learn more about RWB and how it will eventually make major waves for the youth of their hometown.

HML: Where did the idea to create RWB come from?

Jason: The idea came from a Tweet I made back on January 25th [2017] asking if there a book club for Black Twitter. [I] Reached out to Shakirra who was down and some big tweeters with large followings I had befriended over time and here we are now.
Shakirra: The initial idea was definitely Jason's brainchild. He tweeted about how cool it would be to have a "Black Twitter Book Club". I liked the idea, but hated the name so when he called me to talk about it I suggested "ReadingWhileBlack"

HML: At the moment, I can’t really say that I have a favorite writer. Some authors are hit or miss with novels, others put out great work consistently. Who's your favorite author?

Jason: I'd have to say James Baldwin. I think his work is timeless. Everything he's written resonates today. I got into Baldwin a couple years back and I'm mad I'm late to the party honestly.
Shakirra: I love Alice Walker. I've reread The Color Purple at least 5 times since high school. Despite knowing the story (and movie) almost word for word, I get sucked in, and pick up on different details every time.

HML: I’ve found that they key to enjoying reading is to find stories that you’re actually interested in. It’s easy to write off leisurely reading if you’re unable to find content that actually captivates your interests and imagination. What's your favorite genre?

Jason: I'm more of a non-fiction social science kind of guy. Love reading about black culture and black history. I do love a good fiction now and then though.
Shakirra: Growing up I loved black poetry, especially poets like Nikki Giovanni or Maya Angelou. But as I've gotten older I've began to lean more towards non-fiction focused on racism and gender studies.

HML: Speaking of, in an interview that I did last year, I spoke about how I started to hate reading because it was so forced in school. Programs like Accelerated Reader were designed to pique children’s interest in reading but it only made me resent being forced to read certain books for a grade. I’m out of school now and I’ve found it so refreshing that I can pick up and put down a book whenever I feel like it. Long gone are the days when I’m tested for how much info I’ve retained from a book- now I can just read without the pressure of being tested on the material. In that aspect, reading for fun is important to me- how does it shape your day(s)?

Jason: I love television just as much as the next millennial but sometimes you gotta turn that thing off. Before we were entertained by flat screens, we were entertained by pages. Reading a good novel was just like watching your favorite late night prime time tv show. It gave your mind a workout. It increased your vocabulary. I'm not gonna get on my soap box and say tv rots your brain but there's gotta be a balance. I believe leisure reading provides that avenue.
Shakirra: Leisure read should be a part of your self care routine just like exercise or eating healthy. When you take the time out your day or week to sit down and enjoy a book you're doing something for yourself that's almost similar to meditation. You're saying "okay, I'm going to turn everything off, forget those other things I have to do and focus on this." You're usually sitting somewhere quiet or comfortable. All of that is taking care of you. That's important.

HML: Let’s talk representation. It’s no secret that Black people are underepresented in media. It’s hard to find stories about us, then, even when we do, a lot of them aren’t genuine or true to our stories. How important is it for young black boys to see themselves represented in literature?

Jason: I think it's vital right now more than ever.  Representation is one of the greatest positive resources in our community. I was just reading a new study stating that assigning black students from low-income black families to at least one black teacher in the third, fourth or fifth grades reduces the probability that they drop out of high school by 29 percent. The results are even larger for male African American students from persistently low-income families: Their chance of dropping out of high school falls 39 percent. With the impact one black teacher has in a black boy's life, imagine for a second that teacher is giving that young brother a book with a protagonist that looks like him. That goes through struggles like him. That battles adversity and triumphs like he hopes to one day. They need that.
Shakirra: It is extremely important. Seeing yourself represented in the work you have to do  impacts your self-esteem as well as how the information is retained. That is especially important for black boys. A lot of times I feel like education isn't pushed as hard for them as it is for girls. You can see that in HBCU attendance; attendance for Black Women is always higher. We have to work to make higher education accessible for all genders.
jason barnes

HML: For me, it was forced comprehension tests. For others, it may be something else. What advice can you give to a young Black girl who hates reading?

Jason: I'd ask her why she hates it. People are quick to use the word "hate" when they don't like something and that's such a strong word. I'd ask her first what does she like to read or if she was to write a book what would it be about. Then based on her answer, find something related that will spark her interest. The issue I found with books I was forced to read in school was they weren't about me. No one asked me what did I want to read.
Shakirra: I think it's important to get an understanding of where that opinion is coming from; what has she read and what didn't she like about it. Talking to her about her interests and finding something that aligns with what she's into.

HML: One of my favorite stories (Henrietta Lacks/ He-La cells) was turned into a TV movie by Oprah. Is it important to see our stories in different mediums?

Jason: I think so. We look at a show like Queen Sugar that was originally a novel. They've taken a book that was not that large and transformed it into something truly amazing. Expanding that book's universe and telling new stories not found in the book.
Shakirra: I believe it is. Having a book adapted into film broadens our interpretation of the book as well as broadens readership. For me, there have been several books that I've read simply because I saw the show or movie first and wanted more details that the movie missed.
shakirra jones

HML: In a few months, RWB has amassed over 2,000 Twitter followers, launched a website and received recognition from the likes of Michael Eric Dyson. What does the future hold for the Book Club?

Jason: Just expanding our membership. We're starting our Young Adults reading list soon and we're super excited about working with our local Mobile County Black High Schools.
Shakirra: I'm excited to talk work with self published or lesser known authors. As well as increasing the interactions & conversations with our readers.

HML: The Book Club discusses a new book every month with its members. How is the “book of the month” chosen?

Jason & Shakirra : Many of the books, we choose months in advance in a group discussion amongst close friends. Sometimes we let our readers decide by voting online. We try to keep a good balance of fiction and nonfiction.

The T**mp Administration issues a book ban- there can only be one book per household? Which book are you keeping? (This is before we execute our plan to burn all this shit to the ground, of course)

Jason: James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time
Shakirra: The Autobiography of Malcolm X
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