Brooklyn's Free Black Women's Library Continues the Legacy of Black Feminist Book Clubs
As an avid reader and active supporter of most things authored by radical Black women, I am perpetually rummaging through my local bookstores for works written by women who share my experiences, my culture and my history. In my final year of high school, I devoured Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye - the first novel authored by a Black woman that I had been assigned during my entire 13 years within the public school education system. I was shocked by the undertow of unbridled honesty which marked her stories, coupled with her ability to reveal truths typically unspoken within the respectability-bound Black community. As an almost declared Africana studies major in college, I put my anxious hands on any piece of Black literature I could find (or afford). I clearly recall gingerly flipping through Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider for the first time in my freshman year, a revelatory work which allowed me to fully grasp how my positionality as a Black, queer woman meant I didn’t fit neatly within the paradigm of mainstream Black politics nor white feminism. The literary works of Black women have enriched and guided me throughout my college years, equipping me with ancestral knowledge that has allowed to me to ground and empower myself in this present.
I have been excitedly following the progress of the Brooklyn-born Free Black Women’s Library, a mobile pop-up library exclusively featuring the works of Black women authors. Those visiting the library consisting of over 1,000 books can choose to donate a book, exchange their book for another, or simply join in on the poignant community discussions which the library frequently galvanize. Each installation is themed on a genre, author, or book that founder Ola Ronke Akinmowo finds pertinent to the Black community in that moment. During her process of deciding each installation theme she asks herself, “What lessons can we learn from these books? What ideas can we act on now that will provide us in a more empowered mindset when it comes to futurist thinking?” When I speak with Ola I learn that these conversations are perhaps the most significant aspect of the library, as she describes the books as profound “gateways” between various communities.
“People who might not necessarily have spoken to each other are sharing ideas, are giving perspective on things that they may not have heard,” she said. “Some of the conversations we have are really intense. People are walking away with a new idea, of seeing the world.”
Each installation consists of myriad genres including Afrofuturism, science fiction, health, autiobiography, and erotica. As her collection of books grows exponentionally and the library pops up in more locations in New York and out of state, Ola remains committed to running the library as a one woman show. She is currently fundraising to acheive one of her many goals for the library, which is to acquire “a really beautiful book mobile, a nice long bus that will serve as the library’s storage, transportation, and the actual installation… people can just walk into the bus, hang out, which is also a very old school thing.” CRWN spoke to Ola Ronke about the history of Black feminist book collectives, the galvanizing work of the Black literature, and the future of Free Black Women’s Library:
So, who is Ola Ronke Akinmowo?
A yoga teacher, a librarian, a single mom to an amazing 16 year old, a book lover… I’m different things like most Black women. I feel like we have so many different layers to who we are, it's kind of hard to just be one thing. I was just telling someone the other day that pretty much every Black woman I know is really excellent and amazing at multiple things and have their hand in multiple things, that could be out of necessity or out of the fact that we’re dynamic in nature… I started the library as a passion project to highlight Black women authors, celebrate Black women’s literature and connect people around books… I wanted to do something that would center Black women and also interact with books that felt unique and in a way that felt different. I also identify as a Black feminist so much of my foundation within the library work was a Black feminist project. It’s a way to highlight Black women as being sacred and necessary and quirky and brilliant and creative and beautiful and as diverse as far as it goes. Black women not being a monolith and having a hand in different things. I haven’t gone to school for library sciences and I have no legitimate training as a librarian, so when I started the library it was framed as a social art project and a public art project. Now that I’m into the work and have done a lot of reading and research around Black libraries, I’ve come to learn that the library itself is not just a social site, it’s also a tool to build community and relationships. There’s a long legacy of Black librarians and Black archivists that have done powerful, amazing work.
Why a mobile library, rather than a bookstore, or online service?
I definitely wanted to do a library as opposed to a bookstore because I feel like sometimes when it comes to books, access can be a bit limiting because of cost and money issues. I wanted to do something that felt anti-capitalist, and make it so that instead of people paying for books they could exchange with each other. You feel like you’re sharing part of yourself through the library with the books that you bring. A lot of times when people come to the library they may not have money but they’ll have the book and they can leave that and walk away with a new one. It’s a one-for-one exchange. I really wanted to stray away from it being a cash transaction and have it feel more personal in terms of the sharing. As for the mobile library I thought it would be really nice to instead of having people come to where the books are, for me to take the books to them. I like the idea of the pop up library appearing in different places, for example the library has been installed at different museums, like the Studio Museum in Harlem but it’s also been installed at Afropunk, Bed Stuy Pride, barbershops, clothing stores, bus stops. I like this idea that you can find books anywhere. It’s kind of a magical thing that takes place.
What sort of memorable intergenerational conversations has this project galvanized?
The mobile aspect is cool because then I’m having people of different communities interacting with each other. It's very intergenerational. When the library was at a church it was full because I had elders, conservatives, church going black folk, and at the same time I had millennials in the same place. So there’s this idea that the books are bringing all these different people together, and that the books serving as a gateway for all these different kinds of people to come together of different ages, different genders, different classes…
There was a conversation that took place called All About Love by Bell Hooks and one of the things she talks about in the book is that love and abuse do not exist in the same space, and that conversation led to us talking about spanking and corporal punishment. We have people who are in their twenties and early thirties and they’re very adamant that parents shouldn’t spank children and then you have the older generation who their ideology is that that’s part of the way you raise a child. That’s how you keep your child safe and teach your child lessons, that you have to lay your hands on them every once in a while to keep them in check. The Black community engaging around this topic was really great because there was never any kind of animosity, people really hear each other out and listen... The younger generation got to hear the voices of the elders and they got to hear them say that maybe they didn’t make the best choices. And elder people got to hear the younger people say that love and abuse cannot coexist.
How is the library operated now that you have around 1000 books? Are you accepting volunteers? Interns?
I have over 1000 books now all written by Black women authors. When I first started and I had 100 books I thought I was going to keep it at 100. But then once I started collecting more books I realized that 100 books doesn’t even cover the gamut in terms of what needs to be read or talked about between YA books, children book, books on our history. Definitely the hardest part about this project has been getting the books from place to place, which is part of the reason I only do the pop up once a month. It is complicated and usually if the library’s going in an institution of some kind like a museum, school, or a community arts center they’ll provide transportation for me and help me with the installation. But if I’m doing the library in a public space like a bus stop or Afropunk that don’t provide those kind of resources, then I have to handle it on my own. Usually I’ll get a favor from someone who has a car… It’s important for me to have the library in different spaces so sometimes it will just be me who’s going to set up and break down. I’m raising money for a vehicle because I want to have a book mobile, so that’s my goal.
What do you envision for the future of Free Black Women’s Library?
I would love there to be a Black Women’s Library in different parts of the country, and there’s actually a Black Women’s Library in Chicago that was started a couple of years ago, they found me on social media and they really liked the idea. There’s a woman in California who’s also started one of her own. There’s a woman in Canada who reached out to me that she wants to start one. There's a woman in New Orleans that was inspired to start one. The idea of that really excites me, that there are pockets of women throughout the country doing this work.. it’s been something that’s been apart of the work of Black women for a long time. Even in the 60s and 70s Black women were forming collectives and societies of book clubs, creating organizations that were built around Black women’s literature and Black women’s rights, like Combahee River Collective… they had meetings where there would be a table, and they would have the books on the table for people to look at, to read, and for people to exchange with each other. We’ve been doing this work for decades. I’m just continuing the legacy of that work.
Folks can find the next Free Black Women’s Library event continuing the tradition of the Brooklyn block parties during the annual summer TAMA festival, August 18, 2018!