In 2015, OlaRonke Akinmowo sent out an email to her friends and family informing them that she was beginning a new project. She asked them all to answer the same question: What book by a Black woman do you think every person should read? Books from prominent Black female authors like Zora Neale Hurston, Jamaica Kincaid, and Alice Walker were sent to her. She took those books and some from her own collection out to a stoop in Brooklyn, and waited for people to come and trade books with her. And so the Free Black Women’s Library was born.
The Free Black Women’s Library is a social art project that celebrates the brilliance of Black women writers. The library currently does not have a home. Akinmowo keeps the books in a storage unit, and when she decides to have a pop-up she brings her hundreds of books to different places around New York City. The “library” has found a home in different public spaces such as museums, art galleries, community gardens, even barber shops and public parks.
The library features books exclusively written by Black women or Black non-binary authors. Each installation is completely free. Readers are encouraged to bring a book written by an author that fits the criteria to trade Some folks have been trading books since the beginning. Yet, this library does not stop there.
“We offer a wide array of public programming that includes workshops on writing, Black women’s literature, Black feminism works and on Afro-futurism poetry,” says Akinmowo. “The library also has book discussions twice a month through our reading club and we also have cultural presentations.”
Akinmowo hopes to bring people together through her installations and workshops, but most importantly she hopes people engage with literature from as many Black women as they can.
“It’s very much about confronting ideas around capitalism. It’s anti-racist, it’s anti-sexist and it’s pro-community and it’s pro the idea of collective care,” she says. “I wanted to do a project where we could engage in a deep discussion and a critical analysis around the complications of Black womanhood—but not from a place of struggle. Not from a place of victim[hood], but from a place of empowerment, from a place of study, from a place [where you can ask questions like:] ‘What did our ancestors do? ’ What did the freedom fighters do before us?’”
Jet Toomer found out about the Free Black Women’s Library via Instagram. She’s been an active member in the community events and reading swaps. She says her favorite part about the library is the book discussion events.
“I think that they are a really informal, low-pressure way to have rich dialog around literature without the pressures of having to like, speak really intelligently or articulately around literature or to use academic language. People just kind of come with their ideas and it really feels improvisational and it’s exciting because of that,” she says.
For Toomer, spaces like this are valuable and rare. “In thinking about the many spaces that exist in the world, there are so few that are dedicated to the cultural and personal uplift of Black women in our endeavors. So The Free Black Women’s Library is a really important space because it highlights the creative materials and articulations of Black women authors, which have, from my experience, been rarely celebrated, let alone centered. It’s really a special place for that because it fills a void and it creates so many more ideas because of its possibility,” she says.
Toomer’s assessment rings true in the United States because there is indeed a huge lack of diversity in books published by Black authors, let alone Black women. According to a study by The New York Times, non-Hispanic white people account for 60% of the U.S. population, however in 2018, they wrote 89% of books.
For Akinmowo, it is important for folks to keep reading books from Black women. “Reading is like a portal that can just take you to another world, another universe, another way of thinking, another perspective,” she said. “There are so many different ways that [Black women] exist in the world, and that’s something that needs to be highlighted, illustrated and explored. One of the easiest ways to do that is through books and through storytelling and through conversation.”
Currently, the Free Black Women’s Library’s events are held online via Zoom due to the recent Omicron surge, but Akinmowo hopes to resume in-person programming shortly. You can support the Free Black Women’s Library by joining its Patreon. Akinmowo says whatever you contribute to the library will go to its growth. These funds help to cover costs for book storage, rent, shipping, transportation, supplies and labor. You can check out the support page on its website to learn how to send books and buy merchandise.
Akinmowo plans to launch a permanent Reading Room in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, later this year. Follow the library’s Instagram page to stay tuned for upcoming events and Reading Room updates.