The members of the book group sit in a circle and discuss the numerous images of flying in Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon. It is a book that the men enjoyed immensely, their first work of fiction read together since the group’s inception three years ago.
This reading group appears to be similar to millions of book clubs—individuals coming together in living rooms across the country to discuss their readings—except this group meets in an activity room within the walls of the Stafford Creek Corrections Facility, five miles west of Aberdeen, Washington. The facilitator is doctoral candidate Georgia Roberts, who, once a month, makes the 260-mile round trip from Seattle to the facility to lead the men through reading, discussion, and writing exercises.
The group was first formed around a singular event in 2007. Scholar and anti-prison activist Angela Davis was scheduled to speak at Stafford Creek after her visit to Seattle as a UW Danz Lecturer. As a member of the Simpson Center Research Cluster “Public Rhetorics and Permanent War,” Roberts helped organize a group of a dozen men at the facility to read Davis’s book Women, Race, & Class in preparation for her visit. “After her talk, Davis encouraged us to continue our studies on race, class, and gender—and voila! The book club was born,” she explains.
The members of the group choose their reading list by vote and do not shy away from difficult and complicated works that other book groups might avoid. Some of the group’s favorites have included Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism and Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well. “Robinson’s book was probably the most challenging for me. It’s pretty dense,” Roberts describes, “and some of the participants are very close readers. It took us more than a few months to work through it.” The group usually reads through passages together before discussing larger issues. “Bell’s book allowed us the opportunity to talk about the political present and to share our understandings of how race and racism work in our daily lives and also in the more philosophical and legal sense.”
The Stafford Creek Reading Group is evolving and growing in collaborative ways that extend beyond the walls of the facility. For example, both the reading group and the senior seminar Roberts is currently teaching at UW-Bothell are reading President Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father (the 2009 UW Common Book), and the two groups will meet to discuss the book towards the end of the term. For Roberts, reading groups are ripe with opportunities: “I wouldn’t be studying to become an English professor if I didn’t believe in the transformative power of imagination. The value of a group of people studying a common text is that you learn very quickly that there are many possible readings of the same thing. Carving out spaces to talk about our various readings, I believe, is at the very heart of practicing for economic and political democracy.”