Milwaukee book influencer Cree Myles reflects on Bookstagram, power of Black literature
As the world’s population increasingly finds itself responding to 10-word text messages and scrolling through 60-second videos, Cree Myles just wants people to sit down and read a book.
That’s why the Milwaukee-based book influencer has built a community through the Instagram page All Ways Black centered on celebrating Black literature and those who love it. It’s a collaboration with publishing company Penguin Random House.
Myles energetically interviews groundbreaking authors — like Kiese Laymon, author of Long Division; Dr. Salamishah Tillet, activist and author of In Search of The Color Purple: The Story of an American Masterpiece and Robert Jones Jr., author of The Prophets.
Myles has also interviewed Ta-Nehisi Coates, who she analogized as “the literary Beyoncé.”
Myles has a deep appreciation for writers and the essence of writing, calling it “the backbone of most art.” She emphasizes that famous songs and popular movies were first penned by writers and says writers should be celebrated in the same way as singers or actors.
Myles also believes in the power of fiction, an art form that she says can be perceived as leisure. But she notes it can also be much more than that, specifically “an act of resistance for many groups, by [people of color] and Black people, and queer people," as well as a creative way to tackle important and complex topics.
She gives the example of NoViolet Bulawayo’s No Glory, about a fictionalized oppressed regime of animals in Africa called Jidada which really tells the story of Zimbabwe. “And the story is held so much closer to me because she's giving me real creatures, real animals with real experiences. And it's going to stay with me forever, I think, versus if I was reading ‘and then in 1972 Robert Mugabe X, Y, Z.’”
Myles describes books as exercise for the imagination. “We experience our lives in stories, we tell ourselves stories all the time. So why not strengthen that muscle, so that you can engage with society more creatively and more wholly as yourself instead of constantly being told what you're supposed to be doing.”
Since social media is one of the forces constantly telling people who to be, how to think and what to aspire to, with computer algorithms generating posts, advertisements and news articles, Myles has become an expert in shaping the medium to steer people towards books. She uses music, dance, humor and aesthetic backdrops to meet people where they’re at. That includes word-of-the-week videos she creates about vocabulary she gleans from Black literature, like the word "clandestine" from Cherish Farrah by Bethany C. Morrow.
“If you want any change, you cannot alienate everyone who does not think and move exactly like you and expect anything to be different,” says Myles, who used to be a political organizer. “I know that it's exhausting sometimes, but I would rather someone pick up a romance novel that probably isn't connected to any type of impactful change, and like that be their entry point to one day get to X, Y, Z, then never to pick up anything because I was like ‘romance novels are vapid pieces of literature that don't deserve [time]’, because that also isn't even true. Like, we all need a little romance."
Myles says Black Bookstagram spans Africa and the African diaspora, including the U.K. and the Caribbean, and is a supportive scene, with Bookstagrammers sharing each other’s content, celebrating it and rooting for each other. Myles even organized the All Ways Black awards, a virtual awards show celebrating the best in Black books.
Myles says the content published on All Ways Black and in the Bookstagram community at large really does get people to dive into featured literature. “And we always say stuff like ‘Bookstagram made me do it.' Everybody picked a Black book because everybody was saying, ‘You’ve got to pick a Black book.’”
Now, she says, there’s a community of other people who’ve read the books to check in with, not to mention the chance to engage with the writers themselves.