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date: 05 May 2021

Black Women Readersfree

  • Mary I. UngerMary I. UngerDepartment of English, Ripon College


Black women readers have innovated various literacies—oral, textual, visual, and digital—as a way to validate their lived experiences, bond with one another, and lobby for their personal and collective agency. During the 18th century, black women made use of both vernacular and print cultures as strategies of survival and emancipation. Throughout the 19th century, they used reading for racial uplift in institutions such as the black press, the black women’s club movement, and literary societies. Moreover, they documented these acts of reading in cultural artifacts such as scrapbooks, which gave them the ability to manipulate print culture in deeply personal and political ways. Throughout these endeavors, black women readers deployed various literacies—reading both “aright” as well as “rogue”—to assert their agency in the era of print. In the 20th century, black women’s reading became even more professionalized in the role of editor, a position that facilitated the circulation and promotion of black women’s writing; this effort became even more urgent toward the end of the century when black feminists formed consciousness-raising groups and established new academic disciplines that depended on the recovery, anthologizing, and reading of black women’s writing. At the same time, from the postwar era through the end of the century, black women readers emerged as a significant reading demographic, courted by publishers who recognized them as a profitable consumer base. Into the 21st century, black women readers have turned to online and digital spaces in which to continue the tradition of reading for liberation and unity. In this way, the act of reading has also provided for black women a way to negotiate their relationships to American culture, each other, as well as themselves.


In 1872 Frances Ellen Watkins Harper detailed the subversive and empowering nature of reading during Reconstruction in her poem, “Learning to Read.” The speaker, a former slave near sixty named Chloe, tells us that she “longed to read [her] Bible, / For precious words it said.”1 Despite others’ doubts, Chloe remains undeterred and

…got a pair of glasses,

And straight to work I went,

And never stopped till I could read

The hymns and Testament.

Then I got a little cabin,

A place to call my own—

And I felt as independent

As the queen upon her throne.2

Nearly sixty years before Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” (1929), Harper understood the significance of literacy—as well as spaces in which to enact it—for women’s emancipation, particularly for African American women. “Learning to Read” places the act of reading at the center of black women’s personal agency and daily life. This centrality of reading for black women, as exemplified by Chloe, would remain true—and even intensify—for black women in the coming century. Indeed, nearly 140 years later, in 2013, the Pew Research Center reported that college-educated black women were the most likely demographic to read a book.3

Although Harper’s poem and the Pew Research data illustrate both the significance and centrality of reading for black women from the 19th through the 21st centuries, the act of writing has more often centered discussions of literacy and black women’s agency. Indeed, scholars have looked to writing as a way to document the use of literacy in the quest for social justice. Alice Walker’s foundational essay, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” (1974), for instance, views literary history through a black feminist lens by paying tribute to creative production—stories, songs, poems, even gardens—by anonymous African American and black women. For Walker, black women’s creative work has meant survival: For her mother, Walker writes, “so hindered and intruded upon in so many ways, being an artist has still been a daily part of her life. This ability to hold on, even in very simple ways, is work black women have done for a very long time.”4

This association of survival with black women’s creative production echoes throughout black feminist literary scholarship inspired by Walker as well as in recovery projects that began in the 1970s. Most notably, these include, Barbara Christian’s Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition (1980); Hazel V. Carby’s Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (1987); Joanne M. Braxton’s Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition Within a Tradition (1989); Frances Smith Foster’s, Written by Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746–1892 (1993); Carla L. Peterson’s “Doers of the Word”: African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830–1880) (1995); Joycelyn Moody’s Sentimental Confessions: Spiritual Narratives of Nineteenth-Century African American Women (2003); and P. Gabrielle Foreman’s Activist Sentiments: Reading Black Women in the Nineteenth Century (2009). These and still other works powerfully changed the American literary canon by excavating the forgotten and neglected work of black women writers including Pauline Hopkins, Frances E. W. Harper, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and Zora Neale Hurston. The creative labor of these black women writers in turn fueled a nascent black feminist movement both in and outside of the academy. In the process, black women’s scholarly writing proved just as crucial as the creative legacies it worked to recover, interpret, and theorize.

But if writing has symbolized black women’s agency so, too, has reading. In her essay, Walker recognizes that the listening to and indeed reception of creative work has been just as important as the creative work itself. “Yet so many of the stories that I write, that we all write, are my mother’s stories,” Walker confesses:

Only recently did I fully realize this: that through years of listening to my mother’s stories of her life, I have absorbed not only the stories themselves, but something of the manner in which she spoke, something of the urgency that involves the knowledge that her stories—like her life—must be recorded.5

Here, in an essay known for its conception of black women’s cultural production, Walker also theorizes the centrality of reception practices—listening, bearing witness—to the lives of black women. As Jacqueline Bobo writes, “As part of an interpretive community, black women cultural consumers are not simply viewers and readers but cogent and knowledgeable observers of the social, political, and cultural forces that influence their lives.”6 Of course, black women’s purposes for reading, and well as what they read, vary by time, geography, class, and other sociocultural factors. But their reading practices nevertheless contribute to the legacy of survival that Walker speaks of—a legacy that has been neglected, systematically erased from our national literary and cultural histories. Like the stories of Walker’s mother, this history “must be recorded.”

Black Women’s Reading and Reception in the 18th Century

As Walker testifies, black women’s reading practices begin with acts of listening, witnessing, and forming audiences—both collective and individual, formal and informal.7 Limiting black women’s reception practices in the United States to written texts omits the rich archive of oral traditions—storytelling, preaching, singing—that laid the foundation for black women’s textual reading practices in the coming centuries. Indeed, the history of black women as cultural interpreters broadens the definition of reading to include what P. Gabrielle Foreman calls the various “cultural, sociopolitical, and representational literacies” of black women.8 These literacies emerged during slavery, Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes, when African Americans

nurtured a private but collective oral culture, one they could not ‘write down,’ but one they created, crafted, shared with each other and preserved for subsequent generations out loud, but outside of the hearing of the white people who enslaved them, and, later, discriminated against them. It was in this isolated and protected black cultural space that African-American vernacular culture was born and thrived.9

This vernacular culture proved crucial for the lives, identities, and survival of black women who, DoVeanna S. Fulton writes, “consistently employed African American oral traditions—embedded within lived or imagined experiences—to relate not only the pain, degradation, and oppression of slavery, but also to celebrate the subversions, struggles, and triumphs of Black experience in the midst of slavery and afterward.”10 When African Americans were prohibited from learning to read and write, black women innovated ways to listen to and create supportive communities for one another. In this way, Foreman argues, “Social literacy and the power of interpretation are as necessary as, and perhaps even more important than, formal literacy itself.”11 In time, these interpretive modes would evolve into literary practices of later generations; as Fulton claims, “In the hands of African American women writers, this [vernacular] cultural tradition became the foundation of a literary tradition.”12 As Walker reminds us, the act of listening to her mother’s stories inspired her own creative output, identity, and survival. Any discussion of black women’s reading practices, therefore, must include the vernacular.13

One of the most compelling, though fictional, accounts of black women’s oral tradition appears in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) in the figure of Baby Suggs, who regularly convenes in the woods near her home to preach self-love. Though set in the 19th century, Morrison’s depiction of black female audiences, listeners, and witnesses pays tribute to reception practices begun in the 18th. “In this here place, we flesh,” Baby Suggs preaches to her congregation in the woods,

flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you!14

Through her sermonizing and singing, Roxanne R. Reed writes, Baby Suggs “find[s] a means by which to ground and articulate black woman’s experience, while simultaneously serving the community as a whole.”15 Indeed, nine years after Baby Suggs’s death, the memory of her ministrations haunts Sethe, who “wanted to be there now. At the least to listen to the spaces that the long-ago singing had left behind.”16 At the same time, women’s collective orality saves Sethe, too. At the end of the novel, when the “thirty neighborhood women” arrive outside 124, Sethe is transported back to the healing power of Baby Suggs’s Clearing:

For Sethe it was as though the Clearing had come to her with all its heat and simmering leaves, where the voices of women searched for the right combination, the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words. Building voice upon voice until they found it, and when they did it was a wave of sound wide enough to sound deep water and knock the pods off chestnut trees. It broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash.17

As Morrison’s protagonist experiences firsthand, black women’s orality—both its production and its reception—offers a cultural literacy that restores and unites black women.

Though rarer, early textual reading practices restored and united black women, too. Of the small and privileged group of black women who did learn to read English in the 18th century, Phillis Wheatley is undoubtedly the most famous. Though she is celebrated more for her writing, her testimonies of reading illustrate practices that would come to define black women’s reading for generations. Indeed, considered the “mother” of the African American literary canon, Wheatley’s literacy lays the groundwork for two central trends in black women’s reading in the centuries that would follow her: personal liberation as well as bonding with other black women. Known for her exceptional writing skills, Wheatley was also a sophisticated and voracious reader. As biographer Vincent Carretta writes, “According to John Wheatley, within sixteen months Phillis was proficient enough in the English language to be able to read even ‘the most difficult Parts of the Sacred Writings.’”18 “Her poems and letters show,” Carretta continues, “that she became familiar with works by Alexander Pope, . . . John Milton, . . . William Shenstone, Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Terence, and Homer.”19 The vast education that Wheatley amassed from her classical reading habits granted her the knowledge and skills to compose various elegies, odes, and other poems in the classical tradition, culminating in her 1773 collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral that made her a literary sensation both in the United States and abroad.

On her 1773 trip to London, for instance, Wheatley’s knowledge of the Western canon helped make her a literary celebrity, granting her unprecedented access to a wealth of individuals, places, and experiences. She met Benjamin Franklin, toured the Tower of London, and visited Westminster Abbey. On the way, she also amassed an impressive collection of books: “The Earl of Dartmouth,” she would later write to Colonel David Wooster,

made me a Compliment of 5 guineas, and desird [sic] me to get the whole of Mr. Pope’s Works, as the best he could recommend to my perusal, this I did, also got Hudibrass, Don Quixot [sic], & Gay’s Fables—was presented with a Folio Edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost, printed on a Silver Type, so call’d from its elegance (I suppose) By Mr. Brook Watson Mercht.[,] whose Coat of Arms is prefix’d.20

These books not only situate Wheatley’s reading practices within the Western tradition; they also gave her the ability to use that tradition for her own liberation. It was the success of her writing, of course, that ensured her emancipation. Indeed, the very next words after Wheatley’s catalogue of books in her letter to Wooster read: “Since my return to America my Master, has at the desire of my friends in England given me my freedom.”21 This turn of events may not have been entirely surprising to Wheatley, however, who neglects to mention in her letter that abolitionist Granville Sharp, with whom she visited the Tower of London, presented her with a copy of his Remarks on Several Very Important Prophesies, in Five Parts (1768) on her trip, as well as, most likely his other, abolitionist works, notes Carretta. Indeed, it would be difficult, Carretta points out, not to imagine that Sharp aided Wheatley in planning the terms of her manumission.22 In a somewhat surreptitious way, then, Wheatley’s reading practices helped make possible the literary work, celebrity, and relationships that ultimately led to her emancipation.

Although Wheatley was well versed in the Western literary canon, more often she writes about her experiences reading the Bible and other religious texts. In a poem from her 1773 collection, “To the Rev. Dr. THOMAS AMORY on reading his Sermons on DAILY DEVOTIONS, in which that Duty is recommended and assisted,” she attests to the power of reading Armory’s religious work. Having affected her greatly, she writes of the sermons’ ability to “cultivate in ev’ry noble mind / Habitual grace, and sentiments refin’d”; they even, she claims, have the ability to convert atheists who “no more can boast aloud.”23 In addition to sermons, the Bible proved a fundamental text for Wheatley, and she often reflects on its effects on her in her letters. In a 1772 letter to the wealthy London merchant John Thornton, she writes, “I thank you for recommending the Bible to be my cheif [sic] Study, I find and Acknowledge it the best of Books, it contains an endless treasure of wisdom and knowledge.”24

Such religious reading also afforded her friendship. In 1772, Wheatley and Obour Tanner, an enslaved black woman living in Rhode Island, began a correspondence that would span more than five years. And while Wheatley writes to her about many subjects—including her bouts of sickness as well as her book sales—she mostly writes about lessons gleaned from reading, specifically the Bible. “I greatly rejoice with you in that realizing view, and I hope experience, of the Saving change which you So emphatically describe,” she confides to Tanner in May of 1772, acknowledging their shared religious beliefs: “Happy were it for us if we could arrive to that evangelical Repentance, and the true holiness of heart which you mention . . . let us rejoice in and adore the wonders of God’s infinite Love in bringing us from a land Semblant of darkness itself, and where the divine light of revelation (being obscur’d) is as darkness.”25 After establishing this religious bond with Tanner, Wheatley uses it to extend the bonds of friendship: “I hope the correspondence between us will continue, . . . which correspondence I hope may have the happy effect of improving our mutual friendship.”26 Here, faith, friendship, and literacy merge, sparking for Wheatley an unlikely relationship.27 At the same time that Wheatley’s reading habits would help liberate her, they also connected her to other black women, a recurring theme in the history of black women readers.

The formation and sustainment of Wheatley and Tanner’s friendship through shared reading habits is highlighted by the fact that Wheatley sent Tanner reading materials—indeed, copies of her own book. In March of 1774, Wheatley wrote to Tanner that, “I shall send the 5 Books you wrote for, the first convenient Opportunity; if you want more, they Shall be ready for you.”28 She would send another copy, at Tanner’s request, in May, assuring her, “I have recd the money you sent for the 5 books & 2/6 [2 shillings, six pence] more for another, which I now Send & wish safe to hand. Your tenderness for my welfare demands my gratitu[de].”29 This act of sharing and circulating books as well as other reading materials—including their own letters, of course—would define black women’s reading practices for generations to come. Wheatley’s reading practices thus establish black women’s literacy in the 18th century as both public and emancipatory, as well as private and intimate. Moreover, like oral literacies of the 18th century, her textual literacy bonds black women, making legible their personal as well as public truths. For black women readers, Wheatley demonstrates, the personal has always been political.

Reading Up(lift), Aright, and Rogue in the 19th Century

If black women’s reading and reception practices in the 18th century established literacy as a practice for liberation and survival, then in the 19th century, black women carried out this mission in increasingly organized and deliberate ways. To be sure, individual stories such as Wheatley’s of personal liberation through literacy persisted in the new century—the most famous, of course, being Frederick Douglass’s account of learning to read in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). Reading figures prominently in black women’s narratives throughout the 19th century, too—such as Mary Prince’s The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave. Related by Herself (1831); William and Ellen Craft’s Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft From Slavery (1860); Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861); Elizabeth Keckley’s Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (1868); and Anna J. Cooper’s A Voice From the South (1892). In these and similar accounts, reading provides a means to use individual learning as social protest. Yet such literary work is particularly difficult for women compared to men, as Jacobs reminds her readers, because of the demands of domestic work: “Since I have been at the North,” Jacobs writes,

it has been necessary for me to work diligently for my own support, and the education of my children. This has not left me much leisure to make up for the loss of early opportunities to improve myself; and it has compelled me to write these pages at irregular intervals, whenever I could snatch an hour from household duties.30

However limited her—and other black women’s—opportunities to write may have been, Jacob’s testimony stands as proof of her “hard-won triumphs,” both literary and liberating.31

Reading as an emancipatory practice frames other genres of black women’s literary output in the 19th century, too. Lectures and sermons by Maria W. Stewart, Jarena Lee, and Sojourner Truth draw on the power of aural literacy to move audiences to social action, much like in the 18th century. Moreover, similar to Harper’s poem “Learning to Read,” her 1892 novel, Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted, as well as Harriet E. Wilson’s semi-autobiographical novel, Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859) reveal reading as a means of upward mobility. In these narratives, black women use reading for rebellion and for creating opportunities for social mobility and racial uplift, comparable to Amy Blair’s concept of “reading up.”32 However, what marks a change in African American reading practices in general, and for black women in particular in the 19th century, is the emphasis on collective acts and institutions that fostered literacy—namely, the black press, the black women’s club movement, and literary societies.

While the Bible remained at the center of reading habits throughout the 19th century—as Harper’s “Learning to Read” shows us—many African Americans turned to newspapers such as Freedom’s Journal (1827–1829), the Colored American (1837–1841) and the Christian Recorder (1852–present) to participate in the larger national life of the race. These publications afforded their readers, including black women, the ability “to learn about everyday black life in communities across the country.”33 The bourgeoning black press, Patrick S. Washburn writes, in some sense wielded more power than the black church since “a single paper could speak to a far larger audience every week than a preacher could, particularly since readership was much higher than circulation. Each issue was passed around avidly from reader to reader.”34 Moreover, as Nazera Sadiq Wright notes, “The black newspapers of the pre-Civil War period were doubtless read aloud, especially in the 1820s and 1830s.”35 In this way, the early black press created new audiences out of aural, oral, and textual literacies, calling into being endless new “imagined communities” of black readers in the nation’s growing print culture.36

The messages that black women readers encountered in the nascent black press were, however, at best, mixed, suggesting various purposes and strategies of reading for black women, as well as varying relationships with print culture. For one, black women readers often found instruction in articles and advice columns that reinforced their subservience to men while also seeing themselves in key works by black women writers. Eric Gardner notes that in the Christian Recorder, for instance, black women readers “would have seen increasingly dismissive words from some ministers and writers (including editors) about ‘schoolgirl essays’ and sometimes about women’s speech generally” at the same time that they also would have read “some of the most important literary writing—and most important women’s writing—in the paper, including three serialized novels and several short stories from Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.”37 Black girls’ relationship to the press was similarly fraught. While black periodicals routinely “advocat[ed] the idealized roles for black girls in their families and communities that mirrored the idealized roles and perceptions of the dominant culture,” Wright contends, “the stories and columns they published reveal stress and struggle in black households in these early decades of the republic.”38 Whether they were encountering messages that advocated or circumscribed their independence, black women and girl readers encountered the black press as an institution that facilitated shared reading practices, albeit often in apprehensive ways.39

Despite these mixed messages, black women readers developed various interpretive strategies to assert their own agency in the era of print. For one, if the act of reading remained central to black women’s liberation in the 19th century, then a particular hermeneutics was just as important. P. Gabrielle Foreman names this reading modality “reading aright,” a method that pays as much attention to what lurks between lines as it does the lines themselves.40 “Texts must be read through and under the lines,” Wright explains. “In some cases they must be read for what is not being said as much as for what is being said.”41 By reading “aright,” an advice column that “initially looks like a critique of how young black working girls behave in public,” for instance, Wright demonstrates how the text transforms into “a scathing critique of how privileged white women failed to extend even the most basic courtesies to black women in public spaces.”42 Indeed, black women and girl readers in the 19th century quickly learned to innovate literacies outside the dominant structures as a survival strategy. In Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century, Wright recounts the means by which “youthful black girls acquire numerous types of literacy they will need to survive. They develop an ability to decipher potential signs of danger in addition to learning to read words, create poetry, and acquire an education.”43 Reading for black women and girls, therefore, becomes an active, interpretive process, one that becomes essential in navigating not just texts but also the world around them.

In addition to developing new strategies of reading, black women used the press itself to create their own interpretive communities of (traditionally) literate black women readers. In The Work of the Afro-American Woman (1894), for instance, Gertrude Bustill Mossell (herself an accomplished editor) details the significance of black women’s journalism and editorial work carried out by Ida B. Wells, Victoria Earle, Fannie Barrier Williams, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson (listed as Alice Ruth Moore), among many others, through which “The sex and race have reached high-water marks.”44 Additionally, editorial work by Mary Ann Shadd Cary for the Canadian newspaper, The Provincial Freedom (1853–1860), aligns reading with the anti-slavery movement specifically, and the practice of social protest more generally. But perhaps the most well-known example of black women’s contributions to the black press in the 19th century is The Woman’s Era (1894–1897), the official newspaper of the black women’s club movement.45 Indeed, reading was a vital activity in uplift/respectability politics of black women at the end of the 19th century. Privately, these groups created, circulated, and read together various texts, including year books, meeting minutes, pamphlets, and other literature. As such, they used reading as a way—much like Wheatley—to work toward personal liberation as well as to bond with other black women. Doing so, however, would again require the invention of new literacies. “Although the dominant culture at the turn of the century constructed literacy in clear terms,” Anne Ruggles Gere and Sarah R. Robbins write, both black and white

club women created for themselves spaces in which they resisted and/or redesigned these terms. Meeting in homes and club rooms, members controlled access to their minutes and financial records, guarded club transactions from the gaze of nonmembers, and attempted to regulate representations of themselves in the public press.46

These race women “saw literacy as a means of countering stereotypes that reduced them to subhuman terms and as a way of affirming their importance to the nation” and thus “deployed print in actively reformist ways to counter racism and its effects.”47 Much as 19th-century black women readers who read aright, these club women used print “to develop their own model for literacy.”48

Black clubwomen also created their own spaces in which to enact these new models of literacy—the most visible being the aforementioned The Woman’s Era, published out of Boston. Alongside beauty tips and articles on lynching, authors advocated the act of reading for personal as well as societal improvement. In the June 1895 issue, for instance, Sarah E. Tanner exhorted black women readers to “Read with a purpose.”49 “Great care should be taken in cultivating the habit of reading,” she cautions, “for without reading it is impossible to ever be the ‘full man’ of whom Lord Bacon tells us.”50 For Tanner, however, what to read is as important as the act itself, and great taste must be cultivated if reading is to be productive:

Not only is it necessary to acquire the habit of reading, but also the habit of selecting carefully what we read, and this in itself will greatly develop our intellectual tendency, and then we will learn to appreciate the good and beautiful.…

To gather information read histories, biographies and travels.

Read the best novels and romances, authors like Sir Walter Scott, George Eliot, Thackeray, Dickens and Hawthorne.

Do not read about authors and imagine you have read the authors themselves, but with great care study the masters of the art of literature, authors like Milton, Dante, Shakespeare, Bacon, Goethe, Cervantes, Schiller, and others.51

While much of black club women’s reading was devoted to practical uses—meeting minutes, archiving club history, etc.—their reading here, as envisioned by Tanner, becomes much more ideological, calling on black women to select the “right” texts so that they may achieve their “full” potential.52

Literary societies offered black women the opportunity to do just that. In Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies (2002), Elizabeth McHenry offers a groundbreaking history of literary societies that flourished in the 19th and early 20th centuries. “[R]ecogniz[ing] that reading was a potentially transformative activity, not only for individuals but for society as a whole,” groups of free African Americans in the North, McHenry writes, “began establishing societies to promote literacy and to ensure that, as a group, they would not be excluded from the benefits associated with reading and literary study.”53 Literary societies were especially beneficial to black women, McHenry notes, because they offered an “invaluable means of educating black women beyond what was considered their ‘proper sphere,’ preparing them instead to participate in the ‘gentleman’s course’ of study at schools like Oberlin in the 1860s.”54 Moreover, groups such as the Female Literary Association of Philadelphia prompted black women members to use their education for the greater improvement of society, “provided[ing] a forum through which black women could challenge the limitations of gender and begin the process of changing the role of women in American society.”55 Much like Tanner (as well as Wheatley), members of these literary societies read works by white Western canonical authors, “those texts that had traditionally been defined as high culture, thus associating themselves with the prestige identified with genteel culture.”56 In so doing, these literary societies also began to position black women as consumers of books and literature by the end of the century, not just popular and political print culture.

Black women readers consumed various printed texts in another—more interactive—way in the 19th century: by scrapbooking. As a national phenomenon, scrapbooking attracted the likes of Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terrell, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, as well as many other black women. The practice was particularly attractive to and empowering for African Americans because it allowed them to manipulate print culture to correct the wrongs of a racist country. “From the varied materials they collected,” Ellen Gruber Garvey explains, “African American scrapbook makers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century deliberately created alternative records.”57 This allowed them to create cultural artifacts that “were meant to fill gaps in mainstream accounts and assert African American importance in the nation’s history.”58 In this way, Garvey argues, the act of curating served as “a weapon.”59 Clipping articles from newspapers—both white and black publications—and using them to create their own account of national events afforded black women readers, and African Americans more generally, another opportunity to read aright. For black women in particular, Garvey notes, scrapbooking served as a way to document, reframe, and take rhetorical control over printed narratives of national atrocities against black Americans. One anonymous scrapbooker in Boston, likely a member of a black woman’s club, Garvey surmises, preserved a program from the 1895 First National Conference of the Colored Women of America in Boston, as well as an issue of The Woman’s Era; she also saved pieces on lynchings and other violence against African Americans.60 This was common practice, Garvey explains: “When black scrapbook makers recontextualized articles and other materials produced by the murderers and their allies, they turned them into exposures of white depravity.”61 Scrapbooking thus provided black women another new literacy with which to advocate for racial justice.

Black women readers also broke completely with traditional uses of print culture to become—in the words of Benjamin Fagan—“rogue readers.” In his analysis of early American print culture, Fagan turns to Harriet Jacobs who used newspaper to mislead her master, Dr. Flint, after escaping from him.62 To keep hidden her location—a garret in her grandmother’s house, not far from Flint—Jacobs “resolved to write him a letter dated from” the North.63 “I expressed a wish for a New York paper,” she explains, “to ascertain the names of some of the streets.”64 After procuring half of a page from the New York Herald—which had been used to wrap a hat in shipping on its way to North Carolina—Jacobs was able to compose a letter to Flint with the geographic details he would expect. “[F]or once,” Jacobs confides, “the paper that systematically abuses the colored people, was made to render them a service.”65 Indeed, by using the newspaper “as a tool for black liberation,” Fagan writes, “Jacobs reads the Herald against its intentions.”66 In doing so, she

exemplifies . . . a rogue reader, someone who lives outside of the communities imagined by most early American newspapers, has limited if any access to the networks and systems (public roads and post offices, for example) we normally associate with print cultures, but who nevertheless understands print and its pathways as necessarily open and available to revision and manipulation.67

Like other black women readers in the 19th century—club women, members of literary societies, scrapbookers, consumers of the black press—Jacobs uses unconventional reading practices to secure the emancipation, survival, and dignity of black womanhood.

20th-Century Reading Practices: Editing, Consumerism, and Activism

Black women readers of the 20th century created new roles for themselves in the literary marketplace—as editors, consumers, and activists. Though they had inhabited these positions previously, they found new and more explicit ways to commit these institutions to the interests of black women in the 20th century. For one, they firmly established what literary societies in the 19th century had just begun—positioning black women as readers of books and literature specifically, rather than as primarily consumers of popular print culture.68 Second, these editors and activists in particular positioned black women readers as consumers of literature by other black women, thus validating black women’s creative work, lives, and experiences.

At the turn of the century, Pauline E. Hopkins influenced reading habits and tastes while editor of The Colored American Magazine (1900–1909), the first African American literary magazine. Hopkins began her tenure at the magazine by editing the short-lived “Women’s Department” column (which only lasted one issue); she later served as literary editor and eventually as editor-in-chief before being forced out in 1904. As editor, Hopkins sought black women readers for the magazine and through her various contributions helped develop an imagined community of genteel African American women readers. As Alicia Knight writes, during Hopkins’s tenure, “The magazine would discuss matters concerning women and routinely place their portraits on the covers.”69 Her June 1900 “Women’s Department” column, for instance, begins with an “Editor’s Note” that announces, “We bring to this column an enthusiastic desire to do good and pleasing work for our lady patrons.”70 Hopkins then provides a “Club Record,” an index of black women’s clubs across the country, which includes club names, a roster of members, and titles—all sorted by geographic location. In doing so, not only does Hopkins identify her black women readers, but she also facilitates their access to one another. Reading, therefore, becomes a way for black women to locate one another.

But Hopkins would also use her editorial work to promote the reading of black women writers. In later issues, Hopkins edited a recurring column, “Famous Women of the Negro Race” (she had one for men, too) that again attempted to create a reading experience in which black women could see themselves. In her fourth installment, “Some Literary Workers,” Hopkins offers an essay on the intellectual and spiritual advancement of black women before providing a lengthy profile of three black women writers: Phillis Wheatley, Francis Grimke, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. “From the time that the first importation of Africans began to add comfort and wealth to the existence of the New World community,” Hopkins writes, “the Negro woman has been constantly proving the intellectual character of her race in unexpected directions.”71 Indeed, this is because the black woman, according to Hopkins, “holds a unique position in the economy of the world’s advancement in 1902.”72 By specifically gearing her writing toward a black female audience, Hopkins speaks to the growing audience of (traditionally) literate black middle-class women who would consume a literary magazine such as The Colored American. Indeed, Hopkins’s editorial work marks a key moment in the entrance of black women into belles lettres readership in the United States. Ultimately, she creates spaces within the pages of the magazine for black women readers to find one another and to read other black women’s work. In the process, she validates black women’s writing as literature and allows black women readers to see themselves and their experiences in a literary magazine.

As literary editor at Crisis magazine from 1919 to 1926 Jessie Fauset similarly reached millions of black readers who sought to use reading as a form of social mobility with her “What to Read” column as well as various other articles and reviews.73 Indeed, from an early age, Fauset understood the significance of reading. In the February 1922 issue of the Crisis, for example, Fauset recalls the Sunday afternoons of her youth spent in melancholy seclusion, meditation, and reading. “I can almost taste the atmosphere of those far-off times,” she remembers, “Myself, with my precious book upstairs on the bed or on the floor, flat on my stomach, heels up, chin propped in my hands.”74 Fauset then attests to emotional and intellectual growth that reading gave her: “Later I came to cherish that period, came to sense its possibilities. I think I recognized it as the period of my greatest mental clarity. I seemed to be penetrated at such times with a starling realization of the value of things.”75 “Of late I have spent my afternoons reading,” she concludes, “And every perusal brings me fresh pleasure, a new and growing satisfaction.”76

But Fauset also understood the significance of reading for a broader purpose beyond the personal. As an editor, Abby Arthur Johnson writes, Fauset worked “to encourage diversified interests and to attract large numbers of readers.”77 She was instrumental in the careers of Langston Hughes, for instance, as well as Jean Toomer, among other Harlem Renaissance writers; indeed, Fauset was so central to black writing in the 1920s that she has been called the “midwife to the Harlem Renaissance.”78 In the process of assisting others in their literary careers, she also shaped middle-class black taste through her own writing. Her novels detailing middle-class black life—such as There Is Confusion (1924); Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral (1929); and The Chinaberry Tree: A Novel of American Life (1931)—“challeng[e] the irrationalities of the American attempt to classify races biologically and dramatiz[e] race as a cultural construct.”79 At the same time, Fauset’s critique of restrictive and artificial racial categories mirrored her critique of the restrictive and artificial demands of the publishing industry. As Deborah McDowell writes, Fauset’s rejection of the white publishing industry’s expectations of a black writer “comments specifically on the Harlem Renaissance and the literary straitjacketing that pervaded the movement, violating many writers’ artistic integrity and autonomy.”80 By refusing to “satisfy the demands of the publishing establishment,” Fauset—as a reader, editor, and author—worked to serve black readers rather than white publishers.

In a general way, then, black women editors became gatekeepers of literary taste during the early decades of the 20th century. Though both Hopkins and Fauset are remembered more for their writing—specifically their novels—their editorial work had an even greater influence on how and what a generation of middle-class black women read in the early decades of the 20th century.81 They conscientiously designed spaces for black women readers in print culture and used their own reading habits and tastes to set (literary) standards for the larger black community. Moreover, they helped legitimize black women as readers and consumers of literature, not just periodicals and other popular forms of print culture, centering black women’s writing. In this way, editorial work became an important and public way to advocate for black women’s reading in the early decades of the 20th century—a process that would take on even greater meaning by the end of the century.

Though often a target of segregation and exclusion, the library would become another space that benefitted black women in the early decades of the 20th century.82 A similar form of cultural gatekeeping as publishing, book collecting and cataloging offered a way of legitimizing black women readers and writers on an institutional level. Perhaps the most famous collection—the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture—was founded in 1925 as the Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints to preserve writings, documents, and other materials depicting black life in America.83 Benefiting a variety of readers, the Schomburg remains significant in the history of black women readers well into the 21st century because it houses papers of many key black women writers, including Gwendolyn Bennett, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, Zora Neale Hurston, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Nella Larsen, among others. Moreover, since 1999, the Digital Schomburg African American Women Writers of the 19th Century collection offers online accessibility to a wide range of neglected or forgotten black women writers and their works.84 Much like editors, such as Fauset and Hopkins, who facilitated black women’s ability to read one another’s work, libraries protected, circulated, and validated black women’s experiences—and their literature. Perhaps this potential of libraries is what motivated Nella Larsen to become the first black woman to graduate from library school in the United States and to work in the New York Public Library system.85 Regardless, institutional repositories as well as black women librarians themselves served a rapidly growing black female reading base in the early decades of the 20th century.86

Indeed, by mid-century, many of these black women readers could be found in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood of Bronzeville. Here, in the middle of overcrowded conditions—created by redlining and restrictive covenants—a now-forgotten book culture flourished from roughly 1932 to 1955.87 The center of this literary culture was the George Hall branch of the Chicago Public Library system, located in the heart of Bronzeville and led by Vivian G. Harsh, the city’s first African American librarian.88 The success of the library in turn created a book-loving culture that supported eleven black owned bookstores by 1947, as well as various public book forums, literary magazines, theater troupes, writing workshop groups, and even mail-order book departments associated with local black newspapers.89 It also supported black women’s reading groups, including The Book Circle, which started in December 1943.90 Founded by Ora G. Morrow and comprising teachers, librarians, social workers, and other professional black women, The Book Circle met once a month starting on Chicago’s South Side for more than sixty years. Much like black women’s reading practices that came before it, The Book Circle gave its members a way to bond with one another, much like Phillis Wheatley and Obour Tanner. Upon her retirement from the group, Charlemae Rollins, a founding member, wrote, “I have certainly enjoyed each and every one of you and also everything we did together. These wonderful memories will sustain me as I adjust to ‘the aging process.’”91 Moreover, much like black women readers of the club movement, members of The Book Circle emphasized reading for education and self-improvement: member Ruth M. Williams attested that the group “inspire[s]” its members “to look outside ourselves and our daily pursuits and positively be concerned about and work for the enrichment of the larger society.”92

But unlike previous black women readers, who primarily (though not exclusively) read canonical works in the white Western tradition, the women of The Book Circle read mainstream, popular, middlebrow literature—such as the best-selling novels The Robe (1942), and popular nonfiction such as Undercover (1943) and Understanding Human Nature (1927). In doing so, they gained entry into mainstream American culture as consumer-readers; rather than retreating into the apathy of mass culture, however, they repurposed popular texts to address contemporary race relations. Indeed Pearl Buck’s The Promise (1943), for instance, offered members such as Joy Braddan, as she would write in her review for the May 1944 meeting, a new way to contemplate “Similarities between the situation of the darker races in the East and the Negro group in the United States.”93 Reading popular, middlebrow literature, therefore, gave members of The Book Circle a new way to engage social problems. They saw in their reading—to use Gordon Hutner’s language—a “potential, not for escape, but for re-creation—the opportunity for refreshing themselves and their understanding of society, their civic identities as readers.”94 The reading and reception of popular middlebrow literature, therefore, gave the women of The Book Circle the opportunity not only to become “citizen-readers” but also to become something even more powerful: consumers.95 The Book Circle signals the rise of the black middlebrow reader, one with the disposable income to consume popular literature in a way that black readers were unable to before. The Book Circle’s reading habits show the growth of black women readers as a consumer base to be taken seriously and one that by the end of the century would become monetized at an unprecedented rate.

Before that would happen, though, black women would enlist reading in the causes of revolutionary political and academic work, with the two endeavors inevitably intertwining with one another. As black feminism emerged out of the 1960s, the reading, sharing, and discussing of key texts—such as the Combahee River Collective’s “A Black Feminist Statement” (1977)—became a way to use reading in the name of social justice and identity politics. Readers were thus imagined as activists at the dawn of the black feminist movement, and activists were imagined as readers. Moreover, specifically reading literature by and about black women became a political and collective act of survival. Indeed, the Collective itself used reading in its own consciousness-raising endeavors. Not long after forming, the Collective recounts,

We decided . . . to become a study group. We had always shared our readings with each other, and some of us had written papers on Black feminism for group discussion a few months before this decision was made. We began functioning as a study group and also began discussing the possibility of starting a Black feminist publication. . . . Currently we are planning to gather together a collection of Black feminist writing. We feel that it is absolutely essential to demonstrate the reality of our politics to other Black women and believe that we can do this though [sic] writing and distributing out work. The fact that individual Black feminists are living in isolation all over the country, that our own numbers are small, and that we have some skills in writing, printing, and publishing makes us want to carry out these kinds of projects as a means of organizing Black feminists as we continue to do political work in coalition with other groups.96

In an era where “the personal is political,” sharing texts that spoke to black women’s lives did what Hopkins had done for black women readers at the beginning of the century: It reflected black women’s experiences back to them in written form, thereby validating and connecting them. As Barbara Smith would write in her foundational essay, “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” (1977), “I want most of all for Black women and Black lesbians somehow not to be so alone.”97 Reading alongside writing provides a mechanism through which Smith theorizes black feminist work. She goes on to admit

how much easier both my waking and my sleeping hours would be if there were one book in existence that would tell me something specific about my life. One book based in Black feminist and Black lesbian experience, fiction or nonfiction. Just one work to reflect the reality that I and the Black women whom I love are trying to create. When such a book exists then each of us will not only know better how to live, but how to dream.98

Black feminists soon produced many such books. Writers such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones, Gloria Naylor, Toni Cade Bambara, Ntozake Shange, Mari Evans, and Sonia Sanchez gave voice to black women’s experiences in novels, poems, short stories, plays, and other literary endeavors. At the same time, scholars began recovering “lost” works by black women writers from previous generations in order to fulfill Smith’s call to read so that one may “not only know better how to live, but how to dream.” This process involved the meticulous production of reading lists, syllabi, and anthologies, as well as circulating these materials both in and outside of the classroom. Indeed, the birth of black women’s studies both emerged from and was shaped by this effort to make black women’s work visible and available to other black women—efforts that depended on acts of reading and consuming written texts. As Aisha Peay attests, “the genesis of Black Women’s Studies” as located “in a burgeoning black feminist critical community, marked by the publication of journals and collections that were foundational for the field.”99 Anthologies such as Toni Cade Bambara’s The Black Woman (1970); Mary Helen Washington’s Black-Eyed Susans (1975); Barbara Smith’s Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (1983); Cherríe L. Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1983); and, of course, Nellie Y. McKay’s co-editing of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1996) validated black women’s writing as serious and important work, and legitimized black women’s studies as a valid academic discipline. In particular, Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith’s All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave (1982), facilitated this process. This foundational text included political, theoretical, and personal treatises, in addition to providing readers a series of bibliographies and syllabi. These include, for instance, Joan R. Sherman’s “Afro-American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century: A Guide to Research and Bio-Bibliographies of the Poets”; Rita B. Dandridge’s “On the Novels Written by Selected Black Women: A Bibliographic Essay”; Frances Foster’s “Black Women Writers” spring 1976 course syllabi; as well as similar ones by Gloria Hull, Barbara Smith, and Alice Walker. But Some of Us Are Brave thus positions reading as a necessary act of personal, political, and academic reform. Doing so would pave the way for future black feminist anthologies such as The Crunk Feminist Collection (2017), edited by Brittney C. Cooper, Susana M. Morris, and Robin M. Boylorn, which similarly rely on blending oral, textual, and visual literacies and legacies of black women: “Through our written and spoken words, our activism, our collective work, and our support of one another,” they proclaim in their hip-hop manifesto, “we will act up, turn it out, set it off, bring wreck, talk back, go off, or get crunk whenever and wherever necessary.”100

This academic emphasis on reading—much like the activist uses of reading documented by the Combahee River Collective—was very much borne out of a personal need to represent, recover, and (re)connect with black women. Though writing and the production of texts that represented black women were essential to the black feminist movement, both in and outside of academia, it was the reading and circulation of those texts that produced a movement. In this way, the personal fueled the political as well as the academic. Mary Helen Washington remembers that it was reading Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), after all—the novel by Zora Neale Hurston made famous after Alice Walker recovered it in the early 1970s—that inspired her to make a career of reading, anthologizing, and sharing black women’s creative work. Reading Hurston, she writes, “set me on the task which would engage me, passionately, for the next twenty years. I began to immerse myself in collecting the stories of black women, and I realized that I had not been able to commit myself to my work because in the literature I had been taught and in the world I was expected to negotiate, my face did not exist. I know that I felt an immediate sense of community and continuity and joy in the discovery of these writers as though I had found something of my ancestry, my future, and my own voice.”101

In the final decade of the century, the revolutionary power of black women’s reading would become marketed, sold, and consumed in unprecedented numbers. The commercial success of Terry McMillan’s stories about middle-class black women dominated black women’s popular reading in the 1990s and was dubbed “the McMillan Phenomenon.”102 Novels such as Waiting to Exhale (1992) and How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1996) made McMillan a best-selling author and caused publishers to reconsider black readers, especially women, as a profitable consumer base. McMillan’s high appeal—and sales numbers—stemmed from her ability both to represent and speak to black women’s experiences. “McMillan knew that a black book-buying public and a black readership existed, and that they were hungry to see their own creativity, aspirations, and experiences reflected in literature,” Elizabeth McHenry explains.103 Just as Hopkins did earlier in the century, McMillan allowed black women readers to see themselves in literature. Moreover, her female characters were readers, too. In the opening paragraphs of her narrative, Stella confesses: “I’ve got about a hundred books I’ve been meaning to read since last year and I figure now I can probably read them all.”104 Though by no means a new market, black women readers were seemingly singlehandedly transformed by the McMillan Phenomenon into a demographic that publishers aggressively courted. Movies based on McMillan’s work soon followed, making black women’s stories of independence both mainstream and marketable products.

Oprah harnessed this energy in the fall of 1996 when she began the famous Oprah’s Book Club. Though it appeals to many female readers of various racial identities, it joined—and even incited—a wave of black book clubs in the final years of the 20th century.105 With selections as difficult as Morrison and Faulkner, the book club promoted reading to a wide swath of the American public; it also spoke in unique ways to black readers, most of whom are women. “One of Oprah’s intentions in presenting herself as a reader and conducting a television book club is to augment the public’s understanding of African Americans, their culture, and the possibilities open to them,” McHenry writes: “Like earlier reading societies, she is intent on creating and spreading positive images of black people.”106 In this way, Winfrey continues the legacy of black women readers—such as Wheatley and Tanner—who used reading to circulate positive images. At the same time, Oprah’s Book Club functions much like the Book Circle and black feminist anthologies did—it brings black women together, uniting them in a shared literary practice. Moreover, by using her Book Club to promote black women’s writing, Winfrey also resembles Hopkins and Fauset, carefully curating texts for the general public, setting the standard for stories, literary tastes, and texts that matter. As Cecilia Konchar Farr has argued, “The Book Club placed Oprah in the role of cultural critic and arbiter of taste,” whether critics (and academics) like it or not.107 Indeed, some of these critics have formed book clubs of their own in response to Winfrey’s, which they perceive as either not rigorous—or radical—enough. Just over ten years ago, for instance, the website Feministing—which describes itself as “an online community run by and for young feminists” that “offer[s] sharp, uncompromising feminist analysis of everything from pop culture to politics, and inspir[es] young people to make real-world feminist change, online and off”—launched its own counter-book club, the Not Oprah’s Book Club.108 The online forum includes reviews of books that are unlikely to be selected by Winfrey, primarily because of their “controversial” content, such as Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman’s Gender Laws: The Next Generation (2010). Despite accusations that it has grossly commodified the act of reading, Oprah’s Book Club nevertheless has helped keep reading at the center of American popular culture into the 21st century.

21st-Century Reading Communities

As the Not Oprah’s Book Club illustrates, the new century has witnessed the emergence of online book clubs, forums, and other virtual spaces for readers to discuss and review books with one another. Online book clubs specifically for black women have proliferated, starting with the Go On Girl! Book Club (which began offline in 1991). Online book clubs for black women have become even more popular in the second decade of the 21st century. These include, in part: Mocha Girls Read (2011), Black Chick Lit (2016), The Sistah Girl Next Door (c. 2016), and Book Girl Magic (2017). Through Twitter feeds, online forums, blog posts, Instagram accounts, and even podcasts, these groups continue the work of previous black women readers and societies by addressing the needs and interests of their reading base. A play on the popular cultural phenomenon and hashtag, #BlackGirlMagic, Book Girl Magic (BGM), for instance, hosts group discussions of books on Facebook Live in addition to posting online reviews on its website. Its creator, Renee, describes BGM as “a space created [to] empower women of color while celebrating authors of color in our monthly book club picks. We bond in sisterhood by discussing and sharing ideas about the books we read.”109 In a similar way, the founder of Mocha Girls Read (MGR), Alysia, formed the online book group after growing frustrated that most online book forums she joined had few, if any, women of color. Longing for such a community, Alysia began MGR as

a group of black women who love to read, want to read more and meet like-minded women. The books we read range from fiction, self-help, historical romance, best sellers, good ol’ short stories and basically anything we can get our hands on. Mocha Girls Read brings black women in the community together to read great literature, online and in person chit chatting about the monthly selection and a whole lot more.110

By the fall of 2018, Glory Edim’s Well-Read Black Girl (2018) had taken center stage as the most popular resource for black women readers. What started in 2015 as an Instagram post has now become a wildly popular online (and in real-life) book club, Twitter account, anthology (published by Penguin), and even literary festival. Throughout these various virtual and real spaces, Edim frames reading as a powerful act that connects black women, past and present. Memories of reading, she writes,

pull Black women toward one another and solidify our unspoken sisterhood. Reading highlights the intersection of narrative and self-image to create compelling explorations of identity. Reading allows us to witness ourselves. Being a reader is an incredible gift, providing me with a lens to interpret the world. Most important, it has invigorated my imagination and allowed me to choose which narratives I want to center and hold close.111

In a similar way, digital efforts such as #CiteASista, #CiteBlackWomen, and #SisterPhD look to “center and hold close” black women’s scholarly work and reception in academia. These hashtags and digital spaces promote and circulate the intellectual work of black women, much like the anthologies of black feminists did in the late 20th century. “[A]s a once monthly twitter chat that serves as a space to uplift and center the voices and contributions of Black women in the U.S.A. & abroad,” Brittany Williams and Joan Collier launched #CiteASista in 2016 “to give credit and thanks for all of the often used but rarely credited hard work by Black women” as well as to “discus[s] ways to support and uplift of [sic] Black women in daily life.”112 At the same time, these groups, much like reading groups of previous eras, give black women a space, as #SisterPhD does, in which to “facilitate friendships and sisterhood through talking out research, connecting about life experiences, allowing room to vent, and problematize opportunities for growth of self and the group.”113 These forums thus create communities of black women readers who continue to theorize and validate the lived experiences of black women in academia.

Notwithstanding the popularity of these online forums, perhaps nothing demonstrates the enduring legacy of black women’s relationship to reading in the 21st century as does the reception of Michelle Obama’s Becoming. Published in the late fall of 2018, the book was buoyed by a sophisticated marketing infrastructure, including a book tour, a televised interview with Oprah, a segment on Ellen DeGeneres’s popular talk show, and even a website that offers a reader’s guide as well as apparel and accessories with the Becoming brand.114 Highly anticipated by general audiences, the memoir was met with an especially enthusiastic response by black women readers when it was released. In a feature for Essence Magazine, Erica Armstrong Dunbar recalls a roundtable held some weeks in advance of the book’s release with “a small group of Black women writers, scholars, and legal experts” as well as Obama herself. Dunbar reports that “all of the women at the roundtable felt a deep connection to this memoir.”115 Indeed, she writes, “At its heart, Becoming is a celebration of ordinary Black womanhood through an extraordinary story.” In this way, she continues:

The memoir follows in the tradition of other groundbreaking work that tells the stories of Black women. From Phillis Wheatley’s poetry, to Harriet Jacobs’s narrative that highlighted the moral bankruptcy of slavery, to more modern memoirs and biographies of women such as Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ella Baker, Becoming contributes to a growing field of Black women’s history, a history that is still riddled with gaps and holes that need to be filled.

But if Becoming helps fill in those gaps and holes by contributing an extraordinary story to black women’s history, then it also does so by honoring black women’s reading practices. In bringing together Essence’s group of successful black women professionals—and readers—Obama continues the tradition of reading to unite black women. She does so with millions of other black women readers, too, who like Oprah Winfrey have already chosen Becoming as their next book club selection. Moreover, part of the book’s promotion has included highlighting Obama’s own identity as a black woman reader. In a feature for the New York Times, Obama describes at length her reading habits, preferences, and practices, confessing that she has read Song of Solomon “three times” and would often read The Grapes of Wrath and Life of Pi with Malia and Sasha when they were younger, constituting a kind of “Obama family book club,” she describes.116 If the release of Michelle Obama’s Becoming tells us anything, then, it is that black women continue to look to reading as an act that validates the various identities and lived experiences they inhabit—as women, professionals, mothers, and First Lady.

Discussion of the Literature

To date, no comprehensive study of black women readers in the United States exists, aside from this entry. However, scholars have documented various literacies, reading practices, and communities of black (women) readers that together provide a rough sketch of these cultural practices. Heather Andrea Williams offers an important history of black literacy in Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom (2005). Studies that specifically address the meanings and uses of literacy for black women, however, are DoVeanna S. Fulton’s Speaking Power: Black Feminist Orality in Women’s Narratives of Slavery (2006) and Jacqueline Jones Royster’s Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women (2000). For studies of black women’s intellectual work, see Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women (2015) and Brittney C. Cooper’s Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women (2017).

Only a few scholars have addressed the various reading strategies of black women. Barbara Smith’s groundbreaking essay “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” (1977) first theorized a way of reading for black women and of interpreting their work. Much later, P. Gabrielle Foreman’s Activist Sentiments: Reading Black Women in the Nineteenth Century (2009) would introduce the concept of “reading aright” as a hermeneutics for black women.

Studies of reading communities that include or feature black women comprise the largest body of scholarship on black women readers. Dorothy Porter’s essay, “The Organized Educational Activities of Negro Literary Societies, 1828–1846” (1936), is perhaps the first piece of scholarship on African American reading habits. Published in 2002, Elizabeth McHenry’s Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies provides the most comprehensive history of middle-class black readers in the 19th century, particularly pertaining to the black women’s club movement. Eric Gardner’s Black Print Unbound: The Christian Recorder, African American Literature, and Periodical Culture (2015), meanwhile, offers a history of black readers and print culture in the 19th century, with special attention to black women. Ellen Gruber Garvey addresses black women’s reception practices as preserved in 19th-century scrapbooks in Writing With Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance (2013). For an analysis of black club women’s uses of literacy, see Anne Ruggles Gere and Sarah R. Robbins’s article, “Gendered Literacy in Black and White: Turn-of-the-Century African-American and European-American Club Women’s Printed Texts” (1996). Studies of black children’s reading practices in the 19th century include Katharine Capshaw and Anna Mae Duane’s anthology Who Writes for Black Children? African American Children’s Literature before 1900 (2017), as well as Nazera Sadiq Wright’s Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century (2016).

Treatments of 20th-century black women’s reading practices include ethnographies such as Elizabeth Long’s “The Chat-An-Hour Social and Cultural Club: African American Women Readers” (2009); and Jacqueline Bobo’s Black Women as Cultural Readers (1995). Studies of middlebrow literature and reception in the 20th century that give attention to black audiences include Jaime Harker’s America the Middlebrow: Women’s Novels, Progressivism, and Middlebrow Authorship Between the Wars (2007); and Gordon Hutner’s What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920–1960 (2009). Aisha Peay addresses black feminism, the rise of black women’s studies, and late-20th-century anthologies in her dissertation, Reading Democracy: Anthologies of African American Women’s Writing and the Legacy of Black Feminist Criticism, 1970–1990 (2009).

In the second decade of the 21st century, scholars began to theorize the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, and reading by uncovering queer black literacies. Such important work includes E. Patrick Johnson’s Black. Queer. Southern. Women: An Oral History (2018); and Eric Darnell Pritchard’s Fashioning Lives: Black Queers and the Politics of Literacy (2017). These studies offer exciting new directions in the ongoing scholarship of black women readers.

Further Reading

  • Bay, Mia, Farah J. Griffin, Martha S. Jones, and Barbara D. Savage, eds. Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.
  • Bobo, Jacqueline. Black Women as Cultural Readers. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1995.
  • Capshaw, Katharine, and Anna Mae Duane, eds. Who Writes for Black Children? African American Childrens Literature Before 1900. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
  • Cooper, Brittney C. Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017.
  • Edim, Glory. Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves. New York, NY: Penguin, 2018.
  • Foreman, P. Gabrielle. Activist Sentiments: Reading Black Women in the Nineteenth Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009.
  • Fulton, DoVeanna S. Speaking Power: Black Feminist Orality in Womens Narratives of Slavery. Albany: SUNY Press, 2006.
  • Gardner, Eric. Black Print Unbound: The Christian Recorder, African American Literature, and Periodical Culture. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • Garvey, Ellen Gruber. Writing With Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • Gere, Anne Ruggles, and Sarah R. Robbins, “Gendered Literacy in Black and White: Turn-of-the-Century African-American and European-American Club Women’s Printed Texts.” Signs 21, no. 3 (Spring 1996): 643–678.
  • Harker, Jaime. America the Middlebrow: Womens Novels, Progressivism, and Middlebrow Authorship Between the Wars. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007.
  • Hull, Gloria T., Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith. All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies. New York, NY: Feminist Press, 1982.
  • Hutner, Gordon. What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920–1960. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
  • Long, Elizabeth. “The Chat-An-Hour Social and Cultural Club: African American Women Readers.” In A History of the Book in America: The Enduring Book: Print Culture in Postwar America. Vol. 5. Edited by David Paul Nord, Joan Shelley Rubin, and Michael Schudson, 459–471. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
  • McHenry, Elizabeth. Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.
  • Peay, Aisha. Reading Democracy: Anthologies of African American Women’s Writing and the Legacy of Black Feminist Criticism, 1970–1990. PhD diss., Duke University Press, 2009.
  • Porter, Dorothy. “The Organized Educational Activities of Negro Literary Societies, 1828–1846.” Journal of Negro History 5 (1936): 555–576.
  • Pritchard, Eric Darnell. Fashioning Lives: Black Queers and the Politics of Literacy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2017.
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.
  • Scheil, Katherine West. She Hath Been Reading: Women and Shakespeare Clubs in America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012.
  • Smith, Barbara. “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism.” In All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Womens Studies. Edited by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, 157–175. New York, NY: Feminist Press, 1982.
  • Williams, Heather Andrea. Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
  • Wright, Nazera Sadiq. Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016.


  • 1. Frances E. W. Harper, “Learning to Read,” in African American Poetry of the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology, ed. Joan R. Sherman (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 137.

  • 2. Harper, “Learning to Read,” 137.

  • 3. Philip Bump, “The Most Likely Person to Read a Book? A College-Educated Black Woman.” Atlantic, January 16, 2014.

  • 4. Alice Walker, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (Orlando, FL: Harvest, 1983), 242.

  • 5. Walker, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” 240.

  • 6. Jacqueline Bobo, Black Women as Cultural Readers (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1995).

  • 7. The act of listening would prove crucial for black women’s reception practices long after the 18th century. As Toni Morrison would write in 2006:

    My own reading skills were enhanced in schools, but my pleasure in, my passion for the art of reading came long before. It came in childhood and it began with listening. Not only was I a radio child who grew up in the decades when radio was paramount, when being mesmerized by the dramas and reenactments from a speaker box was commonplace, I was also surrounded by adults who told stories, reshaped and solicited them from each other as well as their children. The result was a heavy reliance on my own imagination to provide detail . . . Listening required me to surrender to the narrator’s world while remaining alert inside it. That Alice-in-Wonderland combination of willing acceptance coupled with intense inquiry is still the way I read literature: slowly, digging for the hidden, questioning or relishing the choices the author made, eager to envision what is there, noticing what is not. In listening and in reading, it is when I surrender to the language, enter it, that I see clearly. Yet only if I remain attentive to its choices can I understand deeply. Sometimes the experience is profound, harrowing, beautiful; other times enraging, contemptible, unrewarding. Whatever the consequence, the practice itself is riveting. I don’t need to ‘like’ the work; I want instead to ‘think’ it.

    See Toni Morrison, “The Reader as Artist,” O, The Oprah Magazine, July 2006.

  • 8. P. Gabrielle Foreman, Activist Sentiments: Reading Black Women in the Nineteenth Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 2.

  • 9. Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Introduction: Narration and Cultural Memory in the African-American Tradition,” in Talk That Talk: An Anthology of African-American Storytelling, ed. Linda Goss and Marian E. Barnes (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1989), 17.

  • 10. DoVeanna S. Fulton, Speaking Power: Black Feminist Orality in Women’s Narratives of Slavery (Albany: SUNY Press, 2006), 2.

  • 11. Foreman, Activist Sentiments, 2–3.

  • 12. Fulton, Speaking Power, 2.

  • 13. This is complicated, of course, by the fact that written accounts of these experiences are seemingly nonexistent. As Gates writes, “Charting with any scholarly precision this complex and marvelous process of cultural formation and transformation is extraordinarily difficult to do, precisely because the process was so surreptitious.” See Gates, “Introduction,” 17.

  • 14. Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York, NY: Plume, 1988), 88.

  • 15. Roxanne R. Reed, “A Case for Communal Catharsis in Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 23, no. 1 (2007): 59.

  • 16. Morrison, Beloved, 89.

  • 17. Morrison, Beloved, 261.

  • 18. Vincent Carretta, “Introduction,” in Complete Writings by Phillis Wheatley (New York, NY: Penguin, 2001), xiii.

  • 19. Carretta, “Introduction,” xiv.

  • 20. Phillis Wheatley to Col. David Wooster, 18 Oct. 1773, in Complete Writings, 146–147.

  • 21. Wheatley to Col. David Wooster, 147.

  • 22. See Carretta’s note on p. 193 about Wheatley’s letter to Wooster where she lists her activities, meetings, and gifts from prominent British figures. See also page xxvi of Carretta’s “Introduction” where he theorizes about Sharp’s influence on Wheatley’s emancipation. As he writes, “A slave owner could not have thought of a more dangerous tour guide than Granville Sharp for a slave newly arrived from the colonies” (p. xxvi).

  • 23. Phillis Wheatley, “To the Rev. Dr. THOMAS AMORY on reading his Sermons on DAILY DEVOTIONS, in which that Duty is recommended and assisted,” in Complete Writings, 48.

  • 24. Phillis Wheatley to John Thornton, 21 April 1772, in Complete Writings, 140.

  • 25. Phillis Wheatley to Arbour Tanner, 18 May 1772, in Complete Writings, 141–142. Tanner’s name appears with several variations.

  • 26. Wheatley to Arbour Tanner, 18 May 1772, 142.

  • 27. For more on Wheatley and Tanner’s friendship, see Tara Bynum, “Phillis Wheatley on Friendship,” Legacy 31, no. 1 (2014): 42–51. Tanner’s letters to Wheatley—which would offer a rare example of black women’s responses to reading Wheatley—have not survived. For more on white women’s reception of Wheatley, however, see Joanna Brooks, “Our Phillis, Ourselves,” American Literature 82, no. 1 (March 2010): 1–28. See also Eugene L. Huddleston, “Matilda’s ‘On Reading the Poems of Phillis Wheatly [sic], the African Poetess.’” Early American Literature 5, no. 3 (Winter 1971): 57–67.

  • 28. Phillis Wheatley to Obour Tanner, 21 March 1774, in Complete Writings, 154.

  • 29. Phillis Wheatley to Obour Tanner, 6 May 1774, in Complete Writings, 156.

  • 30. Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ed. Frances Smith Foster and Richard Yarborough (New York, NY: Norton, 2019), 5.

  • 31. Frances Smith Foster and Richard Yarborough, “Introduction,” in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs, ed. Foster and Yarborough (New York, NY: Norton, 2019), xix.

  • 32. Though there is no discussion devoted to African American readers, see Amy Blair, Reading Up: Middle-Class Readers and the Culture of Success in the Early Twentieth-Century United States (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2012).

  • 33. Patrick S. Washburn, The African American Newspaper: Voice of Freedom (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2006), 5–6.

  • 34. Washburn, The African American Newspaper, 6.

  • 35. Nazera Sadiq Wright, Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016), 9.

  • 36. On “imagined communities,” see Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London, U.K.: Verso, 1983).

  • 37. Eric Gardner, Black Print Unbound: The Christian Recorder, African American Literature, and Periodical Culture (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015), 165.

  • 38. Wright, Black Girlhood, 21. For more on the reading practices of black children more generally, see Katharine Capshaw and Anna Mae Duane, eds., Who Writes for Black Children? African American Children’s Literature Before 1900 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

  • 39. In a similar way, Wright explains, conduct books at the turn of the century attempted to police their

    behavioral traits, relying on religious beliefs, and promoting education as paths to good citizenship. These restrictions were outlined in conduct manuals and behavioral guides that targeted black girls. Instead of recommending that black girls acquire an education that would prepare them for uplift work or that they pursue their own career paths, conduct books instructed them to acquire an education that would prepare them to care for others. They taught black girls to defer to black male leadership and that they were to follow rules that would prepare them for their future roles as wives and mothers. They inhibited their natures and restricted their ability to exercise free will. These instructions constituted another form of violence toward young black women. (pp. 147–148)

  • 40. Foreman, Activist Sentiments, 76–77.

  • 41. Wright, Black Girlhood, 8.

  • 42. Wright, Black Girlhood, 8–9.

  • 43. Wright, Black Girlhood, 61.

  • 44. Mrs. N. F. Mossell, The Work of the Afro-American Woman (Philadelphia, PA: Ferguson Co., 1894), 15–16. Note that the work was published using her husband’s initials.

  • 45. See other examples, such as a discussion of Gertrude Bustill Mossell’s column “Our Woman’s Department,” published in the New York Freeman in 1886 and 1887, in Wright, Black Girlhood. Mossell, Wright notes, used her advice column “to promote models of public citizenship that widened the boundaries of black female purposefulness in the postbellum period” (p. 94). The black women and girls who read her column thus encountered support, encouragement, and models for independence and agency.

  • 46. Anne Ruggles Gere and Sarah R. Robbins, “Gendered Literacy in Black and White: Turn-of-the-Century African-American and European-American Club Women’s Printed Texts.” Signs 21, no. 3 (Spring 1996): 650.

  • 47. Gere and Robbins, “Gendered Literacy in Black and White,” 651, 668.

  • 48. Gere and Robbins, “Gendered Literacy in Black and White,” 648.

  • 49. Sarah E. Tanner, “Reading.” Women’s Era 2, no. 3 (June 1895): 14; See Emory Women Writers Resource Project, Emory University[

  • 50. Tanner, “Reading.”

  • 51. Tanner, “Reading.”

  • 52. Again, much like for Wheatley, the “right” texts turn out to be those of the white Western canon.

  • 53. Elizabeth McHenry, Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 3.

  • 54. McHenry, Forgotten Readers, 68.

  • 55. McHenry, Forgotten Readers, 67. For more on 19th-century literary societies and black women, see McHenry, Forgotten Readers, 67–79.

  • 56. McHenry, Forgotten Readers, 225. For more on the emphasis of reading white canonical authors, see Katherine West Scheil, She Hath Been Reading: Women and Shakespeare Clubs in America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012), especially chapter 4: “Shakespeare and Black Women’s Clubs.”

  • 57. Ellen Gruber Garvey, Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013), 131.

  • 58. Garvey, Writing With Scissors, 131.

  • 59. Garvey, Writing With Scissors, 131.

  • 60. Garvey, Writing With Scissors, 151.

  • 61. Garvey, Writing With Scissors, 152.

  • 62. Dr. Flint is Jacobs’s pseudonym for James Norcom.

  • 63. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 108.

  • 64. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 108.

  • 65. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 108.

  • 66. Benjamin Fagan, “Harriet Jacobs and the Lessons of Rogue Reading,” Legacy 33, no. 1 (2016): 20.

  • 67. Fagan, “Harriet Jacobs and the Lessons of Rogue Reading,” 21.

  • 68. To be sure, black women readers had already encountered literature in the black press, for instance, with the publishing of serialized novels by Frances E. W. Harper, and others. But the 20th century saw black women become a formidable consumer base that had the disposable income to purchase—and the leisure to read—books.

  • 69. Alicia Knight, “Commentary,” The Digital Colored American Magazine, dir. Brian Sweeney and Eurie Dahn.

  • 70. Pauline E. Hopkins, ed., “Women’s Department,” Colored American Magazine, June 1900, 118. The Digital Colored American Magazine, dir. Brian Sweeney and Eurie Dahn.

  • 71. Pauline E. Hopkins, “Famous Women of the Negro Race: IV. Some Literary Workers,” Colored American Magazine, March 1902, 278. See The Digital Colored American Magazine, dir. Brian Sweeney and Eurie Dahn.

  • 72. Hopkins, “Famous Women of the Negro Race,” 277.

  • 73. Cheryl A. Wall, Women of the Harlem Renaissance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 35. See also, Joseph J. Feeney, “Jessie Fauset of The Crisis: Novelist, Feminist, Centenarian,” Crisis 90, no. 6 (June/July 1983): 20, 22; and “Jessie Fauset: Midwife to the Harlem Renaissance,” Crisis 107, no. 4 (July/August 2000): 24–25.

  • 74. Jessie Fauset, “Sunday Afternoons,” Crisis 23, no. 4 (February 1922): 162.

  • 75. Fauset, “Sunday Afternoons,” 163.

  • 76. Fauset, “Sunday Afternoons,” 164.

  • 77. Abby Arthur Johnson, “Literary Midwife: Jessie Redmon Fauset and the Harlem Renaissance,” Phylon 39, no. 2 (1978): 149.

  • 78. Deborah McDowell, “Introduction: Regulating Midwives,” in Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral by Jessie Redmond Fauset (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1990), x.

  • 79. McDowell, “Introduction,” xxiii.

  • 80. McDowell, “Introduction,” xxiii.

  • 81. Fauset would also bring her passion for reading to The Brownies’ Book, a periodical for African American children that she also helped edit.

  • 82. For more on the racially fraught space of the library, see Karla F. C. Holloway, BookMarks: Reading in Black and White (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006).

  • 83. See New York Public Library, “About the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.”

  • 84. See online.

  • 85. George Hutchinson, In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 8.

  • 86. Libraries would continue to be an important space for black readers; indeed, in 1971, the Black Caucus of the American Library Association formed in order to “serv[e] as an advocate for the development, promotion, and improvement of library services and resources to the nation’s African American community; and provide[e] leadership for the recruitment and professional development of African American librarians.” See “Our History.” The Black Caucus of the American Library Association.

  • 87. Long overlooked, Bronzeville has only recently been recognized as a crucible of black literary and cultural production after Harlem. See Robert Bone and Richard A. Courage, The Muse in Bronzeville: African American Creative Expression in Chicago, 1932–1950 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2011); Darlene Clark Hine and John McCluskey Jr. eds., The Black Chicago Renaissance (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012); Anne Meis Knupfer, The Chicago Black Renaissance and Women’s Activism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006); Bill V. Mullen, Popular Fronts: Chicago and African-American Cultural Politics, 1935–46 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999); Liesl Olson, Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017); and Elizabeth Schroeder Schlabach, Along the Streets of Bronzeville: Black Chicago’s Literary Landscape (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013).

  • 88. Like Nella Larsen, Harsh was instrumental in building an archive of black writing. The collection named for her—the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection, housed at the Chicago Public Library Woodson Regional branch—constitutes “The largest African American history and literature collection in the Midwest.”

  • 89. For a list of Bronzeville bookstores, see Scott’s Blue Book (Chicago, IL: Scott’s Business and Directory Service, 1947).

  • 90. For a comparison, see Elizabeth Long, “The Chat-An-Hour Social and Cultural Club: African American Women Readers,” A History of the Book in America: The Enduring Book Print Culture in Postwar America, ed. David Paul Nord, Joan Shelley Rubin, and Michael Schudson, vol. 5 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 459–471. For an extended analysis of the Book Circle’s reading and reception habits, see Mary Unger, “The “The Book Circle: Black Women Readers and Middlebrow Taste in Chicago, 1943–1953,” Reception: Texts, Readers, Audiences, History, 11 (2019): 4–20.

  • 91. Charlemae Rollins to Mrs. Ora G. Morrow, undated handwritten letter. The Book Circle Records, Box 1, Folder 6, 1970s [scrapbook], Chicago State University Archives and Special Collections.

  • 92. Ruth M. Williams, “Intangibles of the Book Circle,” The Chronicle: Twenty Five [sic] Years with the Book Circle, 1943–1968, [4]. The Book Circle Records, Box 1, Folder 5, 1960s [scrapbook], Chicago State University Archives and Special Collections.

  • 93. “THE PROMISE, PEARL S. BUCK, REVIEWED BY JOY BRADDAN at the May 1944 meeting of the Book Circle,” Symposium on the Activities of the Book Circle, 1943–44, [14]. The Book Circle Records, Box 1, Folder 3, 1940s [scrapbook], Chicago State University Archives and Special Collections.

  • 94. Gordon Hutner, What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920–1960 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 4.

  • 95. Hutner, What America Read, 4.

  • 96. Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, ed. Cherríe L. Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa, rev. 3rd ed. (Berkeley: Third World Press, 2002), 242.

  • 97. Barbara Smith, “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” in All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies, ed. Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith (New York, NY: Feminist Press, 1982), 173.

  • 98. Smith, “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” 173.

  • 99. Aisha Peay, Reading Democracy: Anthologies of African American Women’s Writing and the Legacy of Black Feminist Criticism, 1970–1990 (PhD diss., Duke University, 2009), 4.

  • 100. The Crunk Feminist Collective, “Hip Hop Generation Feminism: A Manifesto,” in The Crunk Feminist Collection, ed. Brittney C. Cooper, Susana M. Morris, and Robin M. Boylorn (New York, NY: Feminist Press, 2017), xxi.

  • 101. Mary Helen Washington, “Re(Visions): Black Women Writers—Their Texts, Their Readers, Their Critics,” in Black-Eyed Susans/Midnight Birds: Stories By and About Black Women, ed. Mary Helen Washington (New York, NY: Anchor, 1990), 4.

  • 102. McHenry, Forgotten Readers, 298.

  • 103. McHenry, Forgotten Readers, 298.

  • 104. Terry McMillan, How Stella Got Her Groove Back (New York, NY: New American Library, 2004), 16.

  • 105. For a discussion of these clubs, see McHenry, Forgotten Readers, 302–307. Elizabeth Long offers an ethnographic study of contemporary literary societies but limits her study to white women. See Elizabeth Long, Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

  • 106. McHenry, Forgotten Readers, 307.

  • 107. Cecilia Konchar Farr, Reading Oprah: How Oprah’s Book Club Changed the Way America Reads (Albany: SUNY Press, 2005), 14. See also: Cecilia Konchar Farr and Jaime Harker, eds., The Oprah Effect: Critical Essays on Oprah’s Book Club (Albany: SUNY Press, 2008); and Kathleen Rooney, Reading with Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2005). See Jennifer Szalai, “Oprah Winfrey, Book Critic,” New Yorker, April 24, 2013.

  • 108. “About,” Feministing[

  • 109. Book Girl Magic, “About[

  • 110. Alysia, “About: The Mocha Girls Read Story.” Mocha Girls Read.

  • 111. Glory Edim, “Introduction,” Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves, ed. Glory Edim (New York, NY: Penguin), xiv.

  • 112. About,” #CiteASista.

  • 113. #SisterPhD.

  • 114. It remains unclear, however, whether the book actually needed it; indeed, Barnes and Noble reported that “preorders of the memoir had already surpassed any other adult book published since 2015 and that the demand would likely continue to grow.” Erica Armstrong Dunbar, “Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming’ Is Black Women’s History,” Essence, November 13, 2018.

  • 115. Dunbar, “Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming’ Is Black Women’s History.”

  • 116. Michelle Obama: By the Book,” New York Times, December 6, 2018,