A book club for Black men where talk of culture, history and camaraderie is abundant

Darcel Rockett
Chicago Tribune

Chicago — The pandemic may have initially shut down a number of endeavors, but it reinforced the long-standing truth that reading is fundamental. One just has to show up to the Visible Man Review book club on the last Thursday of every month to bear witness to that.

VMR includes diverse Black men, ages 30 to 75, featuring a cross-section of professions, including engineers, artists, art collectors, attorneys and educators. Attorney Alex Breland of Kenwood started the book club in January 2021 as a way to connect during a time of isolation. At the onset, Breland reached out to his friends and colleagues.

Shawn Agyeman, left, laughs as Mashaun Alston, center, and Patric McCoy express their thoughts on parts of a book during the Visible Man Review book club meeting in Chicago on Aug. 25, 2022.

“It’s a play on Ralph Ellison’s book, ‘Invisible Man,’ ” Breland said of the book club’s name. “The thought was we’re visible, meaning Black men. My thought was that’s a cool literary reference and gets to my point of what I think is important, which is figuring out a way for us to be supportive, visible for each other.”

The group met by Zoom in its early stages, but has since been in person, which is why on a breezy summer night in August, VMR members met on the patio of Bronzeville’s Blanc Gallery, sharing drinks, smiles and banter before discussing Phillip Roth’s “The Plot Against America.”

In delving into literature such as “I Came as A Shadow” by John Thompson, “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe, “Incognegro” by Mat Johnson and “Three Girls From Bronzeville” by Dawn Turner, VMR members have talked about religion, youth, 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 the John Thompson book, was invited to the discussion and he ended up on the call for three hours.

“That was confirmation that this is meaningful, and we need to continue,” Breland said. “It’s a group of Black men dedicated to reading and discussion. There’s so few spaces where I have interacted with that realm.”

Alex Breland, founder of The Visible Man Review book club, talks with the group on Aug. 25, 2022, in Chicago.

Breland has tried to curate VMR into an experience where every one of the over two dozen members has a voice. Books are chosen by vote every month and everyone is encouraged to recommend books. The majority of authors and books have focused on the African diaspora. Breland said he recommended “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” by Deesha Philyaw because he wanted to see how the group would respond to the short stories that are “highly concentrated on a queer experience.”

“This isn’t just about us pounding our chests; it’s about learning,” Breland said. “We should be challenging each other. The beauty of it is we’re talking about the book but talking about art, poetry and other things they read, other things they’ve watched and you realize, ‘Man, these are some dynamic folks. How else would I get this?’ ”

“This” being a safe space for Black men and their experiences, where camaraderie, connection and community exists and not by way of watching sports together. The book club is a face-to-face interaction versus a shoulder-to-shoulder one where men pay attention to something else and don’t really engage.

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

“The thought to share that with anybody never occurred to me. I always read, but it was a personal activity,” Thomas said. Having a group to fellowship with helps. I can’t recall doing that recreationally outside of a structured classroom before joining this book club.”

Word-of-mouth has increased VMR numbers, as has social media (Instagram @visiblemanreview and Twitter @visiblemanview). Breland said VMR is something worth sharing; the more, the merrier. Thomas said people have been positively surprised to see the book club in action when VMR meets in public spaces.

Alex Breland, founder of the Visible Man Review book club, goes over notes he made in Phillip Rothâ's book "The Plot Against America" on Aug. 25, 2022, in Chicago.

“Very early on, we realized that there’s power in our representation of this kind of socializing among Black men and what it represents,” Thomas said. “We’ve had a lot of discussions about how we scale that and make that impactful for people beyond us. Whether it’s other adult men or younger kids to show them an example that it’s cool to do this.”

Otis Woods, a 30-year-old policy fellow with the 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 our community, fatherhood and brotherhood. As someone who likes to pick people’s brains, Woods said he sought out the book club.

“I’m really thirsty for learning,” said Woods, of West Englewood. “I enjoy listening to older Black men and their experiences and how they perceive the world.”

Educational consultant Stephen McClain, 38, said the Visible Man Review has createda sacred space for Black men — where they are able to talk about fatherhood, relationships, work, race, current events and process it all with different perspectives. McClain said the club offers a sense of belonging.

“More than anything, I see this as a space of healing,” said the Hyde Park resident. “We’ve read some books that have really allowed us to discuss the Black male experience, which is traumatic. But it’s also given birth to discussions around how can we heal?

“The other piece of this that I think is really important is our focus on Black businesses. Every month when we meet, we meet at a Black business. ... We are buying something, we are listening to the owner talk about their mission, whatever it is. We’ve had Black sommeliers come and expose us to Black wine. We’ve been to art galleries. All of those things are really important beyond the literature, and for Black culture.”

North Kenwood resident and activist art collector Patric McCoy, 75, has raved about VMR so much, he’s gotten other people to join. He said the fact that the book club is for Black men is important.

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

“Because so many of the guys in the group have daughters, they started talking about the concept of men fathering daughters, issues that I have never heard Black men talk about,” he said. “There’s a whole world of issues that Black men have experienced and until now we have not 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 for a way to be everything we are in one place,” he said. “I would say more than other environments I’ve been in, it’s the one place where I feel like I can be all those things in one place. I can be my attorney self, my father self, an artistic guy. It’s a safe space to do all that, which I think is awesome.”