Detroit’s ‘Well-Read Black Girl’ Dawn Sarai ...

Detroit’s ‘Well-Read Black Girl’ Dawn Sarai Robinson uses books to bring people together

Find Your People: The super extroverted bookworm

Dawn Sarai Robinson and other readers in the Well-Read Black Girl book club at Pages Bookshop in Detroit.

For a bookworm, “friend of the bookstore” probably sounds like the ideal honorary gig. If that’s you, prepare to be jealous of Dawn Sarai Robinson, who holds the post at Pages Bookshop in Detroit’s Grandmont Rosedale neighborhood. 

While Robinson is a kind of a reading fiend, her role at Pages is about more than that: she uses the books she loves to bring people together, deepening connections on and off the page through the Well-Read Black Girl book club. 

Well-Read Black Girl is an online group, book club and now actual book focused on Black women and nonbinary writers. It was started by Glory Edim of Brooklyn, New York, and the IRL club part took off, so much so Edim partnered with the American Booksellers Association to bring chapters to indie bookstores across the country.

Robinson had been following Edim’s work for awhile, and she asked Pages about starting a WRBG group locally. 

“They asked me to lead it, which was kind of a big surprise, but I was definitely up for the challenge,” Robinson told Detour. “Here in Detroit, we don’t really have a lot of communities that are centered around black women writers, black women readers, and I just thought it was really important that we bring a space together where it’s inclusive. 

“We get to meet a lot of different people who share the same views and are excited to see themselves in literature,” she added. “So that was the main premise behind it, making it a place for connection.”

Robinson launched the book club last summer and hosts it every other month in the bookstore; they just finished “The Deep” by Rivers Solomon (which happens to have a cool ‘90s Detroit techno connection). The gatherings are open to anyone — stay tuned to Pages’ Facebook for details on the next title and April event. 

It’s safe to say Robinson’s life is pretty consumed by the written word. When she’s not reading and re-reading to prep for her own book club, she’s participating in a few other book clubs; managing her family’s Christian bookstore, God’s World; writing; teaching Bible study; and, of course, reading for pleasure. 

“I always have books with me in some form,” Robinson said. “I’m that person who’s in the grocery store line with my book like, ‘Well, since I’m standing here…’”

Detour chatted more with Robinson about how to spark great conversations, the alarming number of books she’s juggling and why it’s okay if you didn’t do the reading.

On seeing the world through books:

Dawn Sarai Robinson: I almost say I have a book problem. I can’t have a conversation without saying, “Hey, there’s a book about this.” And so I experience the world through what I’m reading. But it also helps me to understand it. The minute that I put down a book, I immediately have to discuss it in some way, even if it means that I’m writing about it or I’m texting someone  because it just helps me to make it a part of the language that I’m looking for. 

The magic moments at Well-Read Black Girl meetings, whether or not you read the book:

Without fail, someone just randomly walks through the door, like, “What’s going on here?” I try to have it set up where even if you haven’t read the book, you can still participate in the conversation. So we did have a drop-by Thursday while we were meeting, and they just jumped right into the conversation even though they hadn’t read the book. 

There are some book clubs that are really strict. If you have not read the book, don’t even think about showing up. But with this one, the whole idea is around community and connection.

We read “The Deep” by Rivers Solomon. The premise of the book is that the African women who were pregnant and were thrown off the ship during the Middle Passage, their babies were able to survive underwater and it created mer-people or mermaids. And it was a really fascinating premise, but the whole book centered around this theme of history. So after I asked some direct questions about the story itself, I asked questions like, “Who is responsible for holding the history?” And, “Why is it important for knowing your history?” Which is something that anyone can have an opinion about, and the drop-in was able to just jump right into conversation.

And I am somebody who loves to call people out. So I will say, “Hey, you’ve been a little quiet. What do you think about this?” 

Why book clubs are about more than just making sense of the story:

Everyone should try to find their people, their community, their tribe. We can get so wrapped up in a day-to-day where you’re going and you’re living your life, almost for other people, to have that little part of you that’s like, “This is my tribe of people that I hang out with and we just talk.” I think the book helps with the conversation. The book can be that context to say, “Let’s talk about these deeper issues, I was wondering if somebody else is going through this too.” And the book just opens up the door for that conversation.

Why WRBG might branch out into a writing group: 

The thing that was surprising was that it also connected me, as someone who loves to write as well, with a lot of writers. I didn’t realize so many women were writing and to be honest, I feel like they weren’t putting their work out, because they didn’t see people like them having successful books or blogs or whatever the case may be. There are so many poets and writers who come to the book club and not getting that recognition or having the courage to even put themselves out there.

The five books she’s currently reading, and a couple recent local faves: 

  • “Such a Fun Age” by Kiley Reid
  • “I Love Myself When I Am Laughing” by Zora Neale Hurston, with Alice Walker
  • “Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry” by Imani Perry
  • “Children of Virtue and Vengeance” by Tomi Adeyemi
  • “Breathe: A Letter to My Sons” by Imani Perry
  • “Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good” by adrienne maree brown (Detroit)
  • “Unashamed: Musings of a Fat, Black Muslim” by Leah Vernon (Detroit)

How she kicked her Amazon habit, beyond the brick-and-mortar bookstore:

Libro.fm, an audiobook site that lets you buy books online and choose the indie bookstore you want to have the profits.

Libby and hoopla, which let you check out ebooks as a Detroit Public Library member. 

Where to find more from Dawn: 

You can check out her newsletter at dawnsarai.substack.com

Parting words:

“I live in Detroit, and I plan to be here for a while. It’s my city. I’m a diehard Detroit girl.”

The interview was edited and condensed for clarity. 

Find Your People is a recurring Detour feature to spotlight people we admire who are fostering deeper connections between Detroiters and the city. Know someone who fits the bill? Let me know: kate@detourdetroiter.com

Header photo: The first meeting of Pages Bookshop’s Well-Read Black Girl book club, reading Pearl Cleage’s “Things I Should Have Told My Daughter,” July 18, 2019. Host Dawn Sarai Robinson sits in front.

Kate Abbey-Lambertz is the co-founder and editorial director for Detour Media. She leads editorial strategy for the signature Detour Detroit newsletter, The Blend and special projects, while shaping Detour’s membership program, audience development initiatives and design. Kate was previously a national reporter at HuffPost, where she covered equitable cities and urban issues. She launched HuffPost’s Detroit vertical, serving as reporter and editor, and has reported on Detroit for a decade. Follow her on Twitter: @kabbeyl