Noname's Book Club Comes to the Oakland Library

Ashley Robinson
Ashley Robinson. (Ashley Robinson)

The Chicago rapper Noname has asked folks all across the country to pull up to their local libraries this Saturday, Jan. 11, to enjoy the abundance of the free public library system. She's calling it "National Fuck Amazon Day."

But Noname isn't just trying to discourage folks from supporting one of the wealthiest tax-avoiding corporations in the world. She's also pushing people to read books, and creating community for readers of color. She even started a book club last summer, Noname's Book Club, which quickly amassed 75,000 followers and was featured on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.

Now, the Oakland Public Library has announced a partnership with Noname's Book Club, promoting and helping people find the selected readings each month. And the library is reportedly looking at scheduling in-person meet-ups to discuss the book club's selections.

"Honestly, I feel like her whole concept is made for Oakland," says Ashley Robinson, the Friends of The Oakland Library board member who made the connection happen. "We're so community-centric, and I feel like these discussions already happen on a day-to-day basis."

Noname's Book Club is already established in other cities, including Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. "I was surprised Oakland wasn't already on the list," says Robinson.

I agree. Especially because Noname's push isn't just about supporting libraries over Amazon, the "earth's biggest bookstore." It's also about supporting locally owned bookstores, with a focus on the black-owned ones. And Oakland is home to the nation's oldest continuously running black-owned bookstore, Marcus Books (which Noname's Bookclub gives a shout out to on its website).

Noname performs at the Outside Lands music festival in San Francisco, Aug. 11, 2017.
Noname performs at the Outside Lands music festival in San Francisco, Aug. 11, 2017. (Estefany Gonzalez)

Despite other book clubs geared towards African-American readers, like Oakland's Booktini Book Club and the local chapter of the Nipsey Hussle-inspired Marathon Book Club, there's still a need to push literacy in Oakland.

While public libraries have laudably created programs for kids, passed out hygiene kits to those in need and recently eliminated late fees, public schools are having issues keeping their campus libraries open. As of 2018, nearly 30 percent of Oakland schools didn't have functional libraries on campus, including six out of the city's seven high schools.

That's crazy to me: there's a lack of funding when it comes to libraries, yet there are so many stories about tech companies, including Salesforce and Hewlett-Packard, donating to Oakland public schools.

The effects of these shortfalls become clear when you consider that, last year, the State of California reported that nearly half of 11th graders in Oakland Unified School District fall below the standard English Language Literacy Achievement level.

Keep in mind that, despite the changing demographics of Oakland's population, the city's public school population is still nearly 75-percent African American and Latino according to OUSD.

So a national bookclub, led by a rapper who is encouraging folks to read books that are largely critical of unjust elements of society, and empowering oppressed people—it's kind of important.

Robinson believes so.

Her day job is working for the photography app and social media platform VSCO, which is based in downtown Oakland. And that's partially what inspired her.

"Honestly, it was all of the people talking about gentrification happening here in the Bay and in Oakland, and working in tech, and being a person of color, it made me want to get involved more," says Robinson.

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She quickly progressed from library volunteer to board member in 2018. Despite her position, she tells me, the connection with Noname's Book Club wasn't a direct part of her involvement with the board—just something she took the initiative to do herself. "It was one of those moments, like: if I don't do this, no one else will," says Robinson.

But before the application to the book club was officially sent, a photo of her half-finished slide deck for a partnership proposal was catching eyes on Twitter.

"I took a picture of the slides and I was like: 'I'm going to put this on Twitter and see what happens'," says Robinson. "I was probably halfway through my proposal, and then it started picking up traction. And that's when Noname's Book Club account retweeted it," says Robinson, adding they sent a direct message with an email as to where she send the finished proposal. "I finished the rest of the proposal in an hour."

Now, Oakland Public Library will have extra copies of the books suggested by the book club, which in the past has suggested books like Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Persepolis (The Story of a Childhood) by Marjane Satrapi.

There's even suggestions from other well-known artists and writers. Rapper Earl Sweatshirt's October pick was Eduardo Galeano's critical look at history in Northern America, Faces and Masks: Memory of Fire Volume 2. Kehlani, the R&B singer raised in Oakland, picked a book in November: Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower, the 1993 science fiction classic that basically (read: exactly) predicted life in today's science fiction-like times.

One of this month's book club selections comes from writer Najma Sharif: Die Nigger Die, the 1969 autobiography of H. Rap Brown (Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin), the former leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The other pick is the collection of Indigenous Latina tales Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine—a 2019 National Book Award Finalist.

For more information on finding the book club's suggested reading, keep an eye on the library's Twitter account, or check the library's online catalog by searching the keywords "Noname books."

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