In July of 2020, as George Floyd’s death pushed more people to enter conversations about racism, Sarah Thomas decided to start a book club celebrating Black joy. She needed a respite from the fighting, and allies needed to nuance their newfound awareness of Black people’s many experiences.
Thomas is a writer who does social media for a large non-profit full-time. She is working on her first chapbook while also contributing to sites including the Onion, Blavity, and Quip (you can find all her work here), with a focus on Black sexuality and queerness. She moved to Chicago from Wisconsin three years ago and is coming up on her one year anniversary living in Logan Square.
After moving, Thomas engaged with Logan Square’s community as much as the pandemic allowed. She was a founding member of Intersectional Community Action Network (iCAN): Logan Square, a Facebook group built on the principle that it’s O.K. to ask questions and make mistakes. The group encourages productive discussion. In this space, Thomas began “Awkward Question” days to open the floor for people harboring embarrassing queries. Essentially, she explained, she was offering free emotional labor. People wanted to learn and she was providing an opportunity.
Despite good dialogues with community members online, the summer was still heavy. As fear of “looters” spread, Thomas began to feel unsafe in the neighborhood.
“I am honestly one of the few Black people I’ve met [here],” Thomas said. Things like walking her dog became stressful — would people think she was “casing” the houses that Biscuit wanted to stop beside?
Personal exhaustion from racist systems was part of the reason Thomas started the Black Joy Book Club.
“As a Black person who lives that experience every day, I’m tired of talking about that shit too,” she said. “I have a limit. I try to find these escapes and these stories that celebrate Blackness from every different point of view.”
Another reason Thomas started the club was to nuance conversations about Blackness.
“Sometimes allies tend to think that Blackness is nothing but this trauma… There really isn’t much space for Black Joy on the news or on social media at all and I wanted to create a space for that,” she said. “Not as a way to deter from what was going on at all, but to say that ‘Hey, now that you’ve learned how to share this resource on Instagram, let’s get you sharing Black art and Black Joy on a regular basis.’ There is so much out there about Blackness that I want people to enjoy and embrace alongside us as we’re fighting.”
Thomas posted about the Black Joy Book Club on Facebook early July. Two weeks later, locals gathered (six feet apart) in Palmer Square Park for the first meeting. Since then, monthly gatherings have been consistent but small.
“I found people were actually really hesitant at first. I had a lot of questions about if people were allowed to come,” Thomas said. “They saw the words ‘Black Joy Book Club’ and they didn’t know if they were allowed to enjoy that, and I think that spoke volumes.”
She said that while white people’s genuine concerns about taking space not meant for them are valid, this hesitance can also stem from their discomfort at not being the main topic of conversation. That’s a problem.
However, she said, “once people figured out that [the book club] is for everyone to learn about and to get out of their own way as far as celebrating Black joy alongside other people of color and other white allies, things have gone a lot better.”
In December, Thomas transitioned the monthly meetings to video calls. Ten people attended January’s call — quite a feat considering the daily flood of virtual interaction. Last month’s read was “Such a Fun Age” by Kiley Reid. Past titles include Samantha Irby’s collection “We Are Never Meeting in Real Life” and “Take a Hint, Dani Brown” by Thomas’s favorite Black romance author, Talia Hibbert.
“Even if you don’t like romance, to see not only a Black woman be the star of a romance book, but a fat Black woman, a Black woman with mental illness [is important], she said. “When I say Black Joy, there are so many expressions out there.”
“Overall, what I want people to get from the book club is that the way that you begin to be an ally or to learn about racial justice is to realize that Black people are human.”Sarah Thomas
In the meetings themselves, Thomas poses general book club questions while also discussing social justice and “the ways that white supremacy continues to serve white people whether you want it to or not.” She feels that the people who show up for her meetings are ready for these conversations.
February’s pick is “Slay,” a novel by Brittney Morris which Thomas described as “Black Panther meets Ready Player One.” If you are interested in attending the meeting on Feb. 27, you can sign up here, or reach out to Sarah Thomas via Twitter.
“If you still feel hesitant grabbing a book off the shelf with a Black face on the cover, this is the push to do that,” Thomas said. “Black joy is for everybody. It’s the assumed default of whiteness that we’re working to get past.”
Featured photo: Sarah Thomas