When book clubs were radical

Sarah Mapps Douglass and the early Philadelphia literary societies

We think we know what book clubs are. In the year of our Lord 2019, they have been depicted in countless movies and television shows always in the same way. A group of women sit on plush couches in a circle surrounding a coffee table holding snacks, perhaps fancy cheeses and fruit. A book sits on their laps, usually closed, and their manicured nails grip a glass of wine, usually white. They are generally white, generally middle aged, and generally not discussing the book. Instead, the book club is a kind of group therapy, a place to discuss your daughter’s soccer slight and your oaf husband’s failure to fix the porch light.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this depiction of book clubs recently. I have been in a few that certainly graze several of these stereotypes. Maybe this stereotype has come to prominence as a way to dismiss women’s participation (and complete dominance) of modern literary life. We know that American women read more than men. And we also know that the bookclub industry (more on this in the future) is dominated by famous women’s influence: Oprah, Reese, Emma (Watson and Roberts).

What’s interesting to me is how often the depiction of the book club is one without teeth. Everything is nice in the book club on television. No one is mad. The thing about discussing a book is that it inevitably leads to discussing your life, and your society. A couple of the book clubs I have been in have radically changed my perspective of the world, all of them have challenged my thinking.

Mostly, I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been doing some extracurricular research on a woman named Sarah Mapps Douglass.

Sarah Mapps Douglass was a black woman living in Philadelphia in the early 1830s. Her paintings are some of the earliest surviving paintings signed by a black american woman. She was the daughter of a prominent abolitionist family, a teacher, a writer, and a public intellectual.

In 1931, at 25 years old, she organized a group of women in her hometown, sent some money to William Lloyd Garrison, and founded the Female Literary Association. The goal of the FLA was self-improvement. The group believed that education could disprove the white belief that African Americans were intellectually inferior. The 1830s in America supported a massive movement of adult educational opportunities: mainly through literary associations, reading groups, and library associations.

The FLA met every Tuesday. They brought books and materials to read. They published some of their ideas in magazines. At the beginning, members wrote anonymous pieces which were put in a box and then read aloud. The women used pen names to write articles in papers that might not have accepted them in the first place.

But this was not a group to gossip. This was a group based on radical change. The FLA was massively influential in the anti-slavery cause. They supported the boycott of goods manufactured by slaves, lobbied for emancipation, and established a school for African-American children.

Here’s part of a speech Sarah Mapps Douglass gave to the FLA in the summer of 1832 that was later published in The Liberator.

How important is the occasion for which we have assembled ourselves together this evening, to hold a feast, to feed our never-dying minds, to excite each other to deeds of mercy, words of peace; to stir up in the bosom of each, gratitude to God for his increasing goodness, and feeling of deep sympathy for our brethren and sisters, who are in this land of christian light and liberty held in bondage the most cruel and degrading—to make their cause our own!

They were there to read and write, sure. But they were also there to allow what they read and wrote to change their perception and change the world around them.

Books challenge us intellectually. They force us (even in fiction) to confront our world in complicated and empathetic ways. It makes sense, then, that a well-formed literary society could also be a group advocating for justice and equality. I’m doing a lot of reading about Mapps Douglass right now just out of interest and curiosity, and one thing that continues to strike me about her is that she placed community at the forefront of her work always. Empower women, give them education and literature, and bring them together to fight.

It seems like the present of this country calls for this kind of organized community again. It seems like book clubs could have the opportunity for radical political work if they were organized more effectively, or even just challenged to do so. I don’t know if that’s a feasible goal. What I do know is that I have been in four book clubs since I moved to D.C. and they have all fallen apart by people moving. The more I read about Mapps Douglass, the more I crave that community of readers and thinkers and hell-raisers.

(FWIW: not to be outdone by literally anyone, Mapps Douglass went to medical school in 1953 and used her training to teach black women in Philadelphia about their anatomy, health, and hygiene. Talk about a hero.)