Upon entering Afrori Books, you immediately feel as though you’ve stepped into a nurtured and cherished safe space. The store stands as a homely retreat from the expeditious bustle of the North Laines and the sleek yet vibrant shop with its mobile bookshelves and deep cozy sofas make for a truly organic book buying experience. As the first black-owned book shop for black authors in Sussex, Founder Carolynn Bain created Afrori Books to ‘support black authors, create diverse bookshelves and be a voice for justice’, offering a vast collection of books by black authors all in one place. The launch of the Afrori Student Book Club in partnership with the University of Brighton’s DeCol collective last week made for a practical and conceptual extension of these core values and intentions.
Focusing on books of black origin, our first title was Michaela Cole’s Misfits, a short book based on her 2018 James MacTaggart lecture. Framed as a narrative that tells the story of a young black woman growing up in a council estate in London, the book articulates the city as a location of unnerving environmental juxtaposition between poverty and material abundance. Coel notes that she ‘lived directly opposite to the Royal Bank of Scotland’ and reveals how the looming topographical positioning of the bank influenced her feelings of exclusion- not because of the ‘Scottish bit’, but the ‘Royal Bank bit’ and its class associations. As the story unfolds, we observe how the intersection between Coel’s race, class, and sex contributes to the discrimination she faces throughout her life that shapes her identity as a ‘misfit’.
Early on in our meeting, (after having broken the ice by way of name, shoe size, and favorite cheese) Carolynn highlighted the significance of book clubs to our understanding of literature through her ‘luggage’ analogy. When we read a book, we accumulate ‘luggage’. Each of our suitcases become packed with our own thoughts and associations that stem from our own personal life experiences. The capacity of our luggage depends essentially on what poet, Muriel Rukeyser refers to as a person’s ability to ‘summon up his life appropriately to receive more life’. For many of us with sheltered or privileged upbringings, our luggage may inadequately reflect the intentions of a given work of literature. The analogy essentially visualises how book clubs help us to diversify our luggage and swap our own bags of thought with the ideas and associations of other people with different points of view. As such, when engaging with a group like the Afrori Student Book Club, one can begin to deconstruct the confines of their isolated luggage hold and reconstruct their thoughts into a more diverse ‘overhead locker’.
One of the interesting points we explored was Coel’s decision to adapt the lecture into a book, despite it working very well in the lecture format. Summoning up all my ‘luggage’, I immediately thought of Sally Rooney’s notion of permanence and literary commodification as ideological transaction. As the meeting progressed, however, I was moved to consider the accessibility of the book format- particularly one as aesthetically pleasing as Misfits– in comparison to the hour-long lecture format that we as university students have had the privilege of becoming accustomed to. Paradoxically, we even considered the inaccessibility of the book form and the disdain associated with the audiobook as the twenty-first century reconfigures the novel as an elitist means through which to buy one’s way into a seemingly educated culture of ‘book-reading people’. We agreed that the decision to adapt the lecture into the book format was necessary for proliferated audience consumption of black-authored and anti-racist media.
We went on to explore ‘the caravan scene’, a frustrating insight into the ways racism infiltrates the workplace and the entertainment industry. Michaela recounts how on the set of her 2015 show, Chewing Gum, ‘five actors and actresses ranging in tones of brown and black [… where] bound up in one third of a trailer’, whilst another trailer was occupied by a single white actress. Her reaction to this blatant racism is to scream (or ‘Kat Slater’) at the producers, telling them the trailer looked like ‘a fucking slave ship’. However, after having amended the situation, Michaela is ultimately the one to apologise to the white actress, ‘asking her to rid herself of any embarrassment’, despite having done nothing at all to resolve the inequality from her position of privilege. The intricacies of the situation launched us into a debate regarding the burden on responsibility pertaining to racism. Was the white woman in the wrong? Should she have addressed the situation? How can we avoid white saviorism whilst promoting anti-racism? Should Michaela have apologised to her? Who’s fault is this and who’s responsibility is it to fix it?! Needless to say, the contents of everyone’s luggage where strewn all over the shop floor at this point.
Examining everything from the precise articulation of unconscious micro-aggressions to the unapologetic tone of Michaela’s voice, our deep dive into Misfits was highly enjoyable and immensely educational. As our time together drew to a close, we contemplated what seems to be a concern for many black-authored texts regarding racism. That is whether the book, despite its many qualities, is merely ‘preaching to the choir’. It was ultimately agreed upon that ‘the choir’ is exactly who needs to be preached to in order to bring about the social strength required to deconstruct the years of systematic oppression that continually devalues black people as less-than in every sphere of life. Stories like Misfits will be read by those willing to consume them, but it is then up to us, all of us, to carry the ideological apparatus of the book in our ‘suitcase’, unpacking it and implementing it into our discussions about race, our own unconscious biases, and the process of dismantling the racist social structures that surround us.
To get involved with the Afrori Student Book Club, please email Bea, email@example.com.