Friday, May 18, 2012

Reading Between the Lines

About two years ago, I started a book club with a handful of friends. It wasn't my first book club. I had started one years ago, but it fizzled out. This time, however, I was determined to put together a group of adults who, like me, adore the art of the written word. We started out as a tiny group of friends meeting in the basement of a local restaurant once a month.


That was us at our first meeting. We had a great discussion, some food and drinks and a movement was born. Soon, we grew to as many as twenty members! We established bylaws, began paying dues, appointed officers, ordered T-shirts, and before we knew it, Between the Lines Book Club was leading by example in advocating literacy in Staten Island, NY and beyond.



Our book selections have been diverse. We've read about British royalty in the 16th century, about blacks owning other blacks as slaves in the 1800s, about an old man who ran away with the circus, about women who stayed in physically abusive relationships, about a woman who raised her male child as if he were a girl. Our conversations have been intense (at times downright LOUD) and our opinions have been diverse. We've discovered a great deal about one another, but we've also discovered so much more about ourselves. Our journey together over the past couple of years has been filled with joy, pain, laughter, anger, and most of all FUN. As a group, we've given back to our community via Project Hospitality, packaging up items at a food pantry for needy families. We've toasted each other's accomplishments, supported each other during times of hardship or bereavement, marched together in protest, and established a bond that surpasses even our shared love of books.




Our club is proof that being smart is fun, that reading is a great group activity, that adults like us can give back to our community and set an example for others. Many entrepreneurs began to emerge from BTL. Aside from me and my career as a writer, we have another author, we have a freelance bartender, a Mary Kay consultant, a caterer, a baker, an entertainment promoter, an Avon lady, and a freelance photographer. We support each other in all of our endeavors and we have become a shining example of what it means to have a support system of like-minded individuals. BTL was a force to be reckoned with.

We decided to add a teen chapter. BTL Teens was started in December 2011 and six young people joined. We considered this a huge accomplishment because everybody knows that teens are not typically enthusiastic readers. To get kids to agree to dedicate themselves to read a book each month in ADDITION to the books they're required to read for school was quite an accomplishment. We had a few reluctant readers in the group (my 16 year old son, included) who were being forced by their parents to participate. But by our first meeting and the ensuing discussion, we had converted them. By our third meeting, the teens were comfortable with me and my co-facilitator Darnell Young, and were eagerly suggesting books for our next discussion! Trust me when I say that there is no greater feeling than making a teenager see the joy in reading a book - especially in this day and age of instant gratification like the Internet, Xbox, Blackberries, iPhones, Droids, cable TV and all the other things that kids spend their time doing. The good 'ole fashioned art of reading was beginning to appeal to them. And the discussions have been incredible. The amount of intelligence, understanding, insight, and wisdom that has come out during our monthly chats is astounding. The teens are sharing their personal experiences, their plans for the future, and they are forming friendships based around their mutual gain of knowledge. What an incredible group of future leaders!



This summer, we will start a chapter called BTL Kids. It will be a summer program for kids ages 8-12, and we are excited to reach a new group of youngsters. Our goal is to show them early in their lives that literacy is important, that reading is FUN! Our two month program will be a great way for them to spend their summer. And once school resumes, the kids will be encouraged to read recreationally throughout the school year, and will be assigned books over extended breaks such as Christmas or mid-winter recess. By the time all the details of our summer program were finalized, we already had each of our twelve slots filled!

My own children will tell you that when they were growing up, I constantly taught them about the history of slavery in this country. I wanted them to always have knowledge of themselves, of their ancestors and of what obstacles they were up against just for being young, gifted and black. One of the things that I've explained to them is that slaves were forbidden to read. The slave owners knew that if their slaves were educated, if they were given the power of literacy, they would no longer be able to keep them under submission. The penalty for a slave caught reading were intense, often brutal. The phrase, "If you want to hide something from a black person, put it in a book." became commonplace - and sadly true. 

When I was a kid growing up in NYC during the crack-plagued 80s, my older sister would send home a big box of books every summer from her dorm room at the University of Pennsylvania. She challenged me to read the entire box by the end of July in exchange for the privilege of visiting her in Pennsylvania. I didn't realize it then, but that challenge began my love affair with books. When I opened up a novel, I was transported from being a black girl in NYC in the 20th century to a white girl in Sweet Valley, California or a princess in England in the 1800s, or a young boy named Tom Sawyer, or a brat named Ramona with her big sister Beezus. My world took on new shapes and colors and the writer in me began to take shape. Sadly, not many of my peers shared my love of reading. As I grew older, that didn't change. Most of the guys I knew in my community didn't read anything - not even the newspaper - unless they were incarcerated. Most of the girls I knew in my community would read only on occasion. It seemed like black people were feeding into the old slave rule of not being caught reading.

With the resurgence of urban fiction, more and more people of color are reading books that run the gamut of genres. Book clubs are a big reason for this change. It's great to read a good story. But it's wonderful to read a good story with friends and exchange ideas and opinions. As a writer, I love the fact that I get to share my thoughts and dreams with readers around the world. It's a great feeling to walk into a bookstore in any airport, any library, chain store, or street vendor and see my work on display. But my greatest accomplishment as a writer so far has been to emerge as a literacy advocate, bringing the book club experience to my peers and to the youth in my community. When I log onto the BTL Teens' Facebook page and see them discussing the fact that they can't put down this month's selection, or when my 16 year old son texts me during study hall to tell me that he's so engrossed in the book that he's laughing out loud, or when the teens tell me they're worried they're getting older and won't be able to remain in the club (the same club their parents forced them to join!), those are the moments when I feel like I'm doing exactly what God meant for me to do.

People often wonder how they can make a difference. We hear horrible stories in the news about our young people. We read terrible accounts of events that have taken place in our communities. But most of us are left with a sense of helplessness, wondering what we can do to change things. Many of us feel that we're powerless to make a significant difference. We leave it up to the politicians to fund programs. We expect the teachers in the schools to spark something in their students that will motivate them. We look to everyone else for help, without realizing that there is something you can do right now with exactly what you have. Take your talent and share it with a young person in your life. If you dance, teach a dance class. If you draw, mentor an aspiring young artist. If you like to knit, start a group and teach that craft to a young person. If you enjoy reading, start a book club in your community. Each one, teach one. You never know how much of a difference you can make until you try.

I'm grateful to have a vehicle through which I'm able to share my love of reading with my peers and with my children and their peers. As the summer approaches, what can you do to spark a fire of excellence in your community? DO IT! You may find that you'll make some great friends, do some major networking, ignite a flame within the youth, and find personal fulfillment unlike anything you've ever imagined!

Go ahead and start something. I dare you!



3 comments:

  1. HEY TRACY! I WILL BE IN NEW YORK JUNE 7TH AND I REALLY WOULD LOVE TO MEET YOU! I CAME TO NEW YORK LAT YEAR AND TRIED TO MEET YOU BUT I SENT YOU A MESSAGE ON TWITTER BUT YOU DIDNT GET ON WHILE I WAS THERE TO SEE IT! I PROMISE I'M NOT CRAZY I'M JUST A HUGE FAN! I LIVE IN BATON ROUGE, LA AND I DONT KNOW WHAT MY ODDS ARE OF MEETING YOU! MAYBE WE CAN MEET AT A LIBRARY OR SOMETHING. I HAVE BEEN READING YOUR BOOKS FOR ABOUT 8 YEARS NOW (SINCE BLACK) YOU ARE MY FAVORITE AUTHOR AND IT WOULD MEAN THE WORLD TO ME! : )

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  2. :-) Kiara, it would be great to meet you. I will be in New York, so hit me up on Facebook and I will make it my business to come and meet you somewhere. XOXO

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  3. Awww Thank you so much!!! I will. I'm going to send you a few reminders! LOL. I dont have a fb page but my cousin who i am going with does. Her name is Chelsea. So i will remind you that it is Kiara from the blog! : )

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