Way back yonder—in late 2018—I co-founded a book club with the owners of MahoganyBooks, Derrick and Ramunda Young. This was a no-brainer of a collaboration. For one, all of us are avid readers and they own a physical book store that focuses on books by and for Black people. It was an opportunity to bring our two brands together in a meaningful authentic way. Plus, I spent so much time in the bookstore dropping off hot-takes and wayward opinions it seemed like a smart way to make sure I didn’t keep distracting people from their jobs.
This book club—The VSB x MahoganyBooks Book Club—has been a success in my mind. We’ve talked about some dope books and the conversations are always fun. Like most book clubs, we tend to veer off into interesting places, but the rooting is always in the book we’ve discussed. We’ve had authors show up to discuss their books (shoutout to Bassey Ikpi, Tiffany R. Jackson and VSB’s Damon Young, among others), and we’ve had authors show up to just...show up. (Shouts out to Elizabeth Acevedo.) We’ve read mostly books by Black authors—the one exception being the book Zora & Langston by Yuval Taylor, who also showed up to do an author talk. We’ve read sci-fi, fantasy, historical fiction, YA, essays, novels, bestsellers, anthologies, award-winners and up-and-coming books.
Because of the pandemic, we’d put the book club on hiatus (it’s a group that meets in person generally). We would always FB Live the discussion, but there’s nothing like sitting in a room full of people talking about a book. We didn’t know how long the pandemic was going to last, so, ya know, we kind of kept waiting and talked about doing it virtually. But last summer was last summer and you know what happens when you put things off—they stay put off. But for us, the book club still exists, we plan on bringing it back, and well, now we get to talk about why you’re even reading this.
A few weeks ago, I got a call from Derrick letting me know that we were going to do a special book club meeting—via Zoom—about President Obama’s presidential memoir (Volume 1) A Promised Land. You may have heard of it: It’s the 700-plus page behemoth of a book that, much like Michelle Obama’s book Becoming, flew off shelves. I gifted that book to folks for Christmas and, of course, have my own copy. Well, Derrick told me that there would be a special guest for this book club and it was going to be invite-only. And not only was it going to be invite-only, but everybody who was invited was going to have to keep quiet about it, couldn’t take screenshots or even talk about it until given the green light. And then I was told that President Barack Obama was going to join.
Do you know how hard it is NOT tell anybody that you’re about to talk to Barack Obama? It reminds me of the time many years ago when I managed Liv Nightclub in Washington, D.C., and we had our quarterly Wonderfull party hosted by DJ Spinna. It’s a whole night of Stevie Wonder jams and jams inspired by Stevie Wonder. The owner, my big brother Omrao, let me know that Stevie was in town and there was a good chance that he would show up to the party; Stevie would occasionally show up to the party whenever it was in cities he happened to be in. That night he was in D.C. Well, I couldn’t tell anybody because, well, 1. we didn’t know he was coming; and 2. his team said, “don’t say nothing.” So I didn’t say anything to anybody and lo and behold, Stevie Wonder showed up and everybody at the party that night got a mini-concert from Stevie Wonder who hit the stage and I’m pretty sure made up a song on the spot. It was a memorable ass night.
Well, much like that, I kept this news to myself and the day of the actual Zoom I was STILL surprised to see Obama show up. You can see it in the video posted below. I knew good and well he was coming and still looked surprised by his presence. It was a hell of an experience. I often wonder how people who are as famous and important to the community as he feels about the fact that they know showing up to things like this will be a whole ass moment for everybody involved. And it was.
Not only did we get a chance to ask questions, President Obama actually shouted out Very Smart Brothas by saying he wanted to meet the brothers who decided to call themselves that. I mean, I really couldn’t have asked for anything more than that. But he was also thoughtful about answering questions by those of us who had the opportunity to ask them. He was cool and engaging and made us all feel special. We were, essentially, in the Zoom where it happened. That’s a little Hamilton-inspired humor (and actual Zoom series). He stayed for an hour, talked effusively about MahoganyBooks and about supporting indie shops and was just...chill. It was an intimate convo with about 20 of us, including Derrick and Ramunda, and I couldn’t have been happier to have been a part of this experience. Plus, he said my name a few times so I’m basically famous now, too.
And then we found out that The Today Show was doing a segment on MahoganyBooks and President Obama’s visit to the book club and I heard him say Very Smart Brothas on national television and then saw my name “Panama Jackson” on television. And then my phone started pinging with social media messages and texts. I didn’t even have use my AK, I got to say, today was a good day.
I had to thank Derrick and Ramunda for making sure that our book club hosted this; they could have just as easily made this a MahoganyBooks event but they decided to make it about the book club, and I will always appreciate that. It ended up being one of those bucket list items that I didn’t even know I had on my bucket list: to talk with President Obama and have him name check Very Smart Brothas is now checked off.
And if you’ll remember, a few years ago I got a voicemail from Oprah Winfrey and got a chance to both meet AND take a shot with her. I’m starting to feel like “who’s next?” But like all good things that have happened in my life, it came in its time, not because I went looking for it. I’ll tell you what, starting this blog with Damon and Liz (and largely, starting to blog because of Liz; thank you, Liz!) was one of the best decisions I ever made.
And the biggest lesson of all?
Reading is fundamental. You might get a chance to meet President Obama because of it.