Book discussion: “Becoming” by Michelle Obama
Saturday, June 22, 2 p.m.
Montclair Art Museum, 3 South Mountain Ave.
Free, but online RSVP encouraged
By GWEN OREL
Usually, when the 15 members of The Bibliophiles bring in books to show and tell and pitch to vote on, there’s a big assortment to choose from for the books they will read and discuss during the year.
But last November, every single woman in the group brought in Michelle Obama’s bestselling autobiography, “Becoming.”
“It was unanimous,” said founder Joyce Harley with a laugh.
The Bibliophiles are the oldest operating incorporated black book club in America. They have been featured in the Newark Star-Ledger, Essence, NJTV, and The New York Times.
The Bibliophiles are partnering with the Montclair Art Museum’s African American Cultural Committee to present an Open Book Discussion of Obama’s book on Saturday, June 22.
“It was a natural fit for us to promote the event,” said Gioya McCrae, program chair for the African American Cultural Committee (and contributor to Montclair Local). The Bibliophiles really put the program together, McCrae explained. Harley herself is a member of the AACC, as are several other members of The Bibliophiles. Four members, discussion leader and Vice President Mary Bennett, charter member and Past President Deborah Collins, President Lee Rambeau and charter member and Secretary Debra Spruill will be on the museum stage on Saturday. Harley will introduce the group.
“Michelle Obama is one of the most influential African American women of our time,” McCrae said. “I want to know her perspective on life, politics, and how we can come together. Because of her influence on our society, I think that this is an important book.”
The Bibliophiles held their private discussion a few months ago.
At that discussion, Harley said, “People were very enamored of her life’s story.
“We laughed at some of the funny things that happened in the course of her relationship with Barack Obama. We were incensed by some of the attacks made on her and her family and her husband. The whole birther business put her children’s lives, she felt, in jeopardy.
“There is a joke going around that after he was inaugurated they were having dinner at a restaurant in D.C., and the owner came to the table and welcomed them. Barack said to Michelle, ‘Gee, If you’d married him, you’d be the owner of this really fine and fabulous establishment.’ And she said, ‘No, If I’d married him, he’d be president of the United States.’
“Her influence on him and his ascension to the White House is something we admired. And we loved her emphasis on being your own authentic self, not paying too much attention to what people have to say about you.”
HISTORY, CULTURE AND FUTURE
The Bibliophiles read the literature of the African diaspora. That can include books by Africans, such as Chinua Achebe’s African trilogy, Harley explained, because Africa is the diaspora to readers here. Current and past booklists are on the group’s website.
A retired attorney, Harley began the African American all-women book group in 1987, after reading Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel “Beloved.”
“It was a book that touched my soul, and the soul of my co-founder,” Harley said. “We just
kept talking about it, and talking about it with other people. We felt the need to bring like-minded people together, and before we knew it we were a book group.
“[Co-founder] Sheila Baynes and I pulled a group of people together at my home. The book was so searing, so elegantly and beautifully written, and the story it told of life after slavery just mesmerized us and moved us so deeply.
“We met and then said, ‘We need to pull this together.’”
Incorporated? Most book clubs don’t incorporate. But then, most book clubs aren’t run by Joyce Harley. Originally, she did not want the club weighted down with rules and bylaws.
But then she thought of all the good an organization like The Bibliophiles could do, and changed her mind.
Now there are bylaws and officers and elections every two years.
They’ve raised money for the United Negro College Fund.Since 2014, they’ve hosted the Culture Keepers Award every other year, to honor people and organizations that preserve the culture of the African diaspora.
The first award went to township librarians from Essex County Abbot Districts [districts that, since 1985, receive high funding levels for K-12] fighting budget cuts to stay open. The award for 2016 went to visual, performing and literary artists.
Last November, The Bibliophiles honored the “Divine Nine,” nine African American fraternities and sororities.
Black fraternities and sororities have been at the forefront of sustaining black culture, fighting to keep historically black colleges and universities funded, working to maintain the Violence Against Women Act, and the Voting Rights Act going, Harley said.
On years when The Bibliophiles don’t give a Culture Keeper Award, they hold a three-day retreat.
When the group began, they hired someone from CUNY to teach group members how to facilitate discussion.
Everyone learned how to get discussion going.
Members also learned how to handle people who talk too much, or go off on tangents.
“These books are very personal. We reveal a lot about ourselves to each other,” Harley said.
They meet six times a year. There’s a strict process for membership intake: prospective members must attend six meetings (having read the books), and convince the committee that they are committed to the literature.
The group is only for black women. At times men have asked to join, but they were more interested in the food and socializing and not the books.
Meetings rotate to different homes, with the hostess providing the food.
It is a very social group: over 30 years, it’s become a sisterhood, Harley said. The members have seen one another through marriages, divorces, children. And the group takes its mission seriously.
It’s important to celebrate the African diaspora, Harley said: “It’s our history, it’s our culture, it’s our roots, it’s our future.”