A book club for black men in Chicago

The pandemic may have initially put a stop to a number of efforts, but it has reinforced the long-held truth that reading is fundamental. Just show up to the Visible Man Review book club on the last Thursday of every month to witness that.

VMR includes diverse black men, ages 30 to 75, representing a cross section of professions, including engineers, artists, art collectors, lawyers and educators. Kenwood lawyer Alex Breland launched the book club in January 2021 as a way to connect during a period of isolation. At first, Breland reached out to his friends and colleagues.

“It’s a play on Ralph Ellison’s book, ‘Invisible Man,'” Breland said of the book club’s name. “The idea was that we were visible, ie black men. I thought that was a cool literary reference and that brings me to what I think is important, which is finding a way for us to be supportive, visible to each other.

The group met via Zoom in its early days, but have since been in person, which is why on a blustery summer night in August, the members of VMR met on the patio of Galerie Blanc de Bronzeville, sharing drinks, smiles and banter before discussing Phillip Roth’s ‘The Plot Against America.

Diving into literature like John Thompson’s “I Came as A Shadow”, Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”, Mat Johnson’s “Incognegro” and Dawn Turner’s “Three Girls From Bronzeville”, the members of VMR talked about religion, young people, generational divides and guys trying to make their way in the world. Breland said he knew he was on to something when Jesse Washington, co-author of John Thompson’s book, was invited to the discussion and found himself on the call for three hours.

“It was confirmation that it made sense, and we have to keep going,” Breland said. “It’s a group of black men dedicated to reading and talking. There are so few spaces where I have interacted with this realm.

Breland tried to make VMR an experience where each of the more than two dozen members has a voice. Books are chosen by vote each month and everyone is encouraged to recommend books. The majority of authors and books have focused on the African Diaspora. Breland said he recommended Deesha Philyaw’s “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” because he wanted to see how the band would react to news that is “heavily focused on a queer experience”.

“It’s not just about pounding our chests; it’s about learning,” Breland said. “We should challenge each other. The beauty is that we’re talking about the book, but we’re talking about art and poetry and other things they’ve read and other things they’ve watched and you realize, “Dude , they are dynamic people. If not, how could I get this? ”

“This” is a safe space for black men and their experiences, where camaraderie, connection and community exist and not watching sports together. Book club is face-to-face interaction as opposed to side-by-side interaction where the men pay attention to other things and don’t really engage.

Austin native and South Loop resident Marcus Thomas has been with VMR since its inception. He said while reading is a daily occurrence, it’s not something black men talk to each other or an activity they share with each other. He said he never really had anyone he could talk to about his love of reading.

“The thought of sharing this with anyone never occurred to me. I always read, but it was a personal activity,” Thomas said. Having a fellowship group with helpers I don’t recall doing this recreationally outside of a structured classroom setting before joining this book club.

Word-of-mouth increased the number of VMRs, as did social media (Instagram @visiblemanreview and Twitter @visiblemanview). Breland said VMR is worth sharing; More the merrier, the merrier. Thomas said people were positively surprised to see the book club in action when VMR met in public spaces.

“Early on, we realized there was power in our portrayal of this type of socialization among black men and what it represents,” Thomas said. “We had many discussions about how we evolve and make this impactful for people beyond us. Whether it’s other grown men or younger kids to show them an example that it’s cool to do that.

Otis Woods, a 30-year-old policy researcher from Leadership for Educational Equity, said VMR has read books that help him think about identity, masculinity, relationships with black women, relationships with white society. , understanding of our community, fatherhood and brotherhood. As someone who likes to pick people’s brains, Woods said he researched the book club.

“I’m really hungry to learn,” said Woods, of West Englewood. “I love listening to older black men and their experiences and how they view the world.”

Education consultant Stephen McClain, 38, says Visible Man magazine has created a sacred space for black men – where they can talk about fatherhood, relationships, work, race, current affairs and process it all with different perspectives. McClain said the club offers a sense of belonging.

“More than anything, I see this as a healing space,” said the Hyde Park resident. “We read books that really allowed us to discuss the black male experience, which is traumatic. But it has also spawned discussions about how can we heal?

“The other thing that I think is really important is our focus on black businesses. Every month when we meet, we meet at a black business. … We buy something, we listen to the owner talk about his mission, whatever it is. Black sommeliers came to expose us to black wine. We went to art galleries. All of these things are really important beyond literature and for black culture.

North Kenwood resident and activist art collector Patric McCoy, 75, loved VMR so much he convinced others to join. He said the fact that the book club is for black men is important.

McCoy, co-founder of nonprofit arts organization Diasporal Rhythms, said it was while reading “Three Girls From Bronzeville” that the conversation went in directions he never would have thought of.

“Because so many of the guys in the group have daughters, they started talking about the concept of men fathering daughters, issues that I’ve never heard of from black men,” he said. “There’s a whole world of issues that black men have had and so far we haven’t had the mechanism to talk about those things.”

Breland agreed and said VMR is an environment where black men can embrace and articulate their whole person.

“As black men, we struggle to find a way to be all that we are in one place,” he said. “I would say more than other environments I’ve been in, this is the one place where I feel like I can be all of these things in one place. I can be my advocate myself, my dad myself, an artistic guy. It’s a safe space to do all of that, which I think is great.

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Angela C. Hale