WITS Anti-Racist Book Club: Study Hall

Kellie RomanyBooks, Diversity Initiatives

Study Hall, the Working in the Schools’ (WITS) book club, began in 2020 as a collaborative learning space for adult learners to actively participate in anti-racist conversations. Study Hall focuses on both anti-racist discourse and celebrating the range of genres and stories by BIPOC authors. As the Marketing Director at WITS, it is my responsibility to facilitate Study Hall. We have met 9 times as of July 2022 and had many productive and challenging conversations.

Another Anti-Racist Book Club?

It is fair to be skeptical of yet another book club within a primarily white-led organization whose started goal is to learn about anti-racism. How can Study Hall be any different than the many other book clubs that don’t go beyond performative allyship? As a Black employee tasked with creating a space for anti-racist discussion, I believe it is crucial to recognize that while a book club alone will never be enough to combat systemic racism; it is important to create spaces in which white participants are encouraged to lean into discomfort, to read books that can help us all understand the way capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism affect marginalized communities, and, most importantly, to help us learn how our words and actions can help dismantle systems of oppression.

As writer on race, culture & politics, Tre Johnson says of the proliferation of anti-racist book clubs, “It’s not just about amplifying our voices, it’s about investing in them and in our businesses, education, political representation, power, housing and art. It starts, also, with reflection on the harm you’ve probably caused in a black person’s life.” It is my belief that book clubs can be radical spaces: spaces where we can confront uncomfortable truths and learn to be better citizens and advocates for one another. Storytelling remains one of of the most accessible ways in which we can understand each other. I hope that, through Study Hall, WITS can create a space that participants can learn about unfamiliar experiences in a way that prioritizes change versus comfort.

The books!

Since Study Hall began the group has read books ranging from novels and poetry to memoirs and nonfiction. Here are some of the books we read, the reasons why we chose them, and some of our favorite quotes.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

We often hear the phrase “historical trauma” when talking about structural racism. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is a historical fiction novel that gives the reader an understanding of the historical trauma experienced by an enslaved population. In order to dismantle systems of oppression, we must first understand the multifaceted effect opression has had on generations of people. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times writes of this concept, “The book leaves the reader with a visceral understanding of both the savage realities of slavery and the emotional damage that is handed down over the centuries.”

History is Storytelling…But now we come upon the “problem of conflicting stories… Whose story do we believe? We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”

Yaa Gyasi – Homegoing
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

The United States government has made intentional efforts to hide the ongoing history of their acts of oppression against Indigenous populations. In the Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich uses stories from her grandfather’s time as Chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Advisory Committee to write a historical fiction novel about life in the early 1950s. Ron Charles of the Washington Post writes, “Early in this banquet of a novel…a character on the reservation boasts, ‘Law can’t take my Indian out of me.’ Unfortunately, the United States government is hoping to do just that through the Termination Bill, an Orwellian plan that promises to ’emancipate’ Indigenous people from their lands and their tribal affiliations. This isn’t in 1893; the novel takes place in the 1950s.”

“In all, 113 tribal nations suffered the disaster of termination; 1.4 million acres of tribal land was lost. Wealth flowed to private corporations, while many people in terminated tribes died early, in poverty. Not one tribe profited. By the end, 78 tribal nations, including the Menominee, led by Ada Deer, regained federal recognition; 10 gained state but not federal recognition; 31 tribes are landless; 24 are considered extinct.”

Louise Erdrich – The Night Watchman
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Mexican Gothic is a horror-thriller that uses well-crafted, visceral metaphors to help the reader understand the pervasiveness of colonialism and eugenics in modern society.

“It was the house that disfigured the land.”

― Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Mexican Gothic

Los Angeles Times contributor Bethanne Patrick writes, “The author’s postcolonial spin on the gothic tradition evokes the usual suspects: Daphne du Maurier, Emily Brontë, Mary Shelley, even Anne Radcliffe. Like those authors, Moreno-Garcia works in a tradition in which chills and thrills tap into elemental cultural fears — runaway science, carnal passion. But to these she adds a more politically inflected horror, both ancient and timely: A racist will to power.”

So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

There was not a single page in So You Want To Talk About Race that did not include a lesson that everyone would be better off for learning. We are all complicit in systems of oppression and we all need to check our privilege. Author Jenny Bhatt writes, “‘With this book, Ijeoma Oluo gives us — both white people and people of color — that language to engage in clear, constructive, and confident dialogue with each other about how to deal with racial prejudices and biases. And this dialogue is critical.”

“Get used to that uncomfortable feeling that arises when you discover that perhaps your privilege is hindering your ability to truly understand or address an issue. Get used to that pang of guilt that comes with realizing yet another area of life where you’ve benefited at the expense of others. It will not kill you. You can withstand it.”

Ijeoma Oluo – So You Want To Talk About Race

Tena Latona, CEO of WITS, stated of our organization’s commitment to anti-racism in June 2020, “This is not a long road. It is a road that never ends.” Another book club will not solve this country’s racial disparities, but it is a small step in the right direction. As Ijeoma Oluo says, “Words are always at the heart of all our problems, and the beginning of all our solutions.”