At an Authors Guild gala honoring Toni Morrison last May in New York, two women started chatting — about their hair, about their dresses and, ultimately, about books. Glory Edim and novelist Tayari Jones shared a cab ride home to Brooklyn afterward, and on the way, Edim told Jones her idea for expanding her Well-Read Black Girl book club. “I told her I was thinking of doing a literary festival, but I didn’t know what it would look like,” Edim says. “She helped me figure it out.”
Says Jones, “The conference she was describing was a full-on extravaganza of writers, readers, artisans and other talented folks. She had her heart set on September. I told her I loved the idea, but there was no way she could pull it together in just a few months. She said, ‘I think I can.’”
Soon after that, Edim launched a Kickstarter campaign. She hoped to raise $15,000, but far surpassed that, reaching close to $40,000. (It probably helped that her day job at the time was at Kickstarter, as a publishing outreach specialist; she has since quit.) The literary festival — with Naomi Jackson as a keynote speaker and Marita Golden leading a writing workshop — sold out, drawing 600 people. If you had to pinpoint a moment when Well-Read Black Girl transformed from a Brooklyn book club to a literary phenomenon, this would be it.
“The good will and optimism in the air changed every person in that room,” Jones says. “We each left the conference knowing that we were part of a movement celebrating black women not just as readers and writers, but as members of a community.”
Edim didn’t have this goal in mind when she launched the project. At first, she was just looking — like many of us — to bond with other women about the books they loved and to shine a spotlight on black female authors. “There are other spaces where black women’s voices are not given as much visibility, but the literary canon should be more expansive,” she says. She points to data from a Pew Research Center report that showed the most likely person to read a book is a college-educated black woman. “Why aren’t we giving that more attention?”
Edim’s focus on black female authors began as a freshman at Howard University. Her mother had fallen into a severe depression that lasted for years; during that time, she lost her job, her home and ultimately, her voice. “My mom was basically mute for five years,” Edim explains. “She wouldn’t talk or communicate, until that moment when we would try to seek help or get her into a facility, and suddenly she’d find her voice again, for that moment.” Faced with a situation that forced her to take responsibility for her parent and two younger brothers, Edim looked for solace — and a substitute for her mother’s voice.
“I don’t think I was looking for representation per se,” she says. “I was looking for advice or ground rules on how to become an adult, how to cope. But I didn’t have the language for it. Audre Lorde has this whole passage about mothering herself, and I remember encountering that and going, ‘This is what I’m doing.’ ” Edim’s eyes begin to glisten. “When you’re lacking the attention or validation or affirmation that you need, you have to find it other places, and for me, that was literature.”
She didn’t know she was starving until she started devouring [Toni] Morrison, Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston.
Had her immigrant mother had been willing to speak, what could she have told her first-generation Nigerian American daughter about growing up as a self-empowered black woman in the United States? Edim created her own road map, reading works such Mari Evans’ “I Am a Black Woman” and Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.” “The books I was reading, they told me, ‘This is how you practice your feminism, how you navigate micro-aggressions, how you can compose yourself in places which project their own individual bias on you,’ ” Edim says. She didn’t know she was starving until she started devouring Morrison, Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston.
This inspired her nickname: “Well-Read Black Girl.” Edim’s boyfriend, Opiyo Okeyo, had it printed on a T-shirt four years ago as a birthday gift, complete with a university-style seal listing her favorite authors. “It was like my own house sigil from ‘Game of Thrones,’” she says, laughing. The shirt became an instant conversation-starter, as women on the New York subway would ask her about it and then begin discussing the authors they were currently reading, from Octavia Butler to J. California Cooper. After that happened six or seven times, Edim says, “I started thinking, ‘There is something here. I want to keep having these conversations.’” Thus was a book club born, one that was designed to be “aspirational and affirmative.”
The club’s first meeting was a modest affair, a “test” group of eight people who gathered in August 2015 to discuss Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me.” The next meeting, a month later, was more ambitious. Edim approached Naomi Jackson during a book signing and asked if she would come to a club meeting to discuss “The Star Side of Bird Hill.” Edim told Jackson how much the book had meant to her because of her mother’s mental illness. She also mentioned the book club’s small but avid online community. “We had about 100 followers on Instagram at that point,” she says, “so I pulled out my phone and showed her. She immediately said yes.” The session was also made available on video.
A few months later, Edim brought in another author, LaShonda Katrice Barnett, whose “Jam on the Vine” had been selected as a book-club read. Barnett invited the Well-Read Black Girl group, by then about 20 people, to meet in her home. “At the time, I lived in a beautiful, sprawling Upper West Side apartment,” Barnett says, “and I wanted to put together a little spread for the ladies. Where I come from, feeding people signals your deep appreciation. I wanted the group to know that I don’t take readership for granted.”
“That she opened her heart and home to us, we were at her feet, in awe of everything she had to offer,” Edim says. “When you’re in close proximity with an author like that, you feel like you get some of her magic onto you!”
Barnett says she quickly recognized that this was more than a book club: “It is a literary movement, celebrating the rich legacy, current moment, and future of black women’s writing.”
A year later, a young editor at Ballantine Bantam Dell approached Edim about publishing a book of her own. “I was really surprised,” she says, “because I saw myself more as a reader. So my first thought was, ‘What can I write about?’”
She settled on creating an anthology in which black women would discuss recognizing themselves in literature for the first time. Jesmyn Ward, Jacqueline Woodson and Gabourey Sidibe are contributing essays for the collection, coming this fall. Edim’s own contribution, the introduction, is behind schedule. “I have a draft for two different versions, and my editor is going to murder me,” she says, laughing.
Also coming up is a memoir, to be called “Raised by Books.” Says Edim: “I was so used to being a caregiver and being a cheerleader, advocating for other people to tell their story, and now I’m trying to figure how to give myself the space to do that, too.”
All of these are stepping stones, Edim hopes, toward something bigger. The anthology could become a series, for example. And a second literary festival, planned for this fall, could become a two-day event, with 800 people attending. In addition, the brand could expand into the worlds of film and theater. “I want this to be a continuous thing in the world,” Edim says. With her Instagram count now up to 69,000, that seems entirely possible.
Recently, the news about Well-Read Black Girl has spread to the pages of Vanity Fair, where for a cover story about Lena Waithe, the writer, producer and actress was pictured inside wearing the club’s T-shirt. “A black woman handed me the shirt when I was in New York doing press,” Waithe says. “And when I got back to my hotel and saw what it said, I loved it. I loved what it stood for and that it perfectly described me, so I started to wear it around the house.” Edim was getting off a plane in Memphis when the photos appeared, and suddenly understood all the notifications she’d been getting on her phone. “My friend Whitney said, ‘You’re in Vanity Fair!’” Edim says, laughing. “I was confused, but then I saw the shirt. It was such a surreal, full-circle moment, because it really is the T-shirt that started so much of this. It was a crazy trifecta of excellence — how is this even my world?”
Since the Vanity Fair issue hit newsstands, demand for the T-shirt has taken off, spreading what Edim feels is an important message: “You can decide what it means for you, but for me, it means I’m unafraid of how the world might see me. Why wouldn’t I be a well-read black girl?”
Vineyard is a writer and editor in New York.
Glory Edim will be at the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes April 20 and at the book festival April 21, on the panel “Publishing: What’s Working and What’s Next” at 11 a.m. and on the panel “Black Girl Magic” at 3 p.m.