The vision OlaRonke Akinmowo had when she started the Free Black Women’s Library in 2015 was radical in itself. Her New York-based library pop-ups — in which attendees take a book written by a Black woman and leave a book by a Black woman — work to eradicate internalized stereotypes.
“There are a lot of different labels often attached to Black womanhood and the library really works to confront that narrative and show that Black women are not a monolith,” Akinmowo says.
“There’s so many different types of Black women. There’s lesbian, bisexual, Black trans women from London, Cuba, Jamaica. Blackness is global, Blackness is expansive. Black women are writing about mystery, science fiction, health and wellness, sexuality, politics, and finance. The library kind of represents and amplifies that idea.”
What started as a grassroots project has morphed into a movement. The events have taken place in barbershops, bars, art galleries, and cultural centers. Akinmowo’s literary collection has also grown into over 2,000 books by Black women. Although allowing readers to build intimate relationships with each other has always been its core mission, existing in the era of COVID-19 has introduced a new set of challenges for its founder.
“Part of the purpose of the Free Black Women’s Library is to build community, so running it has definitely been challenging because of Corona. Because of Corona, we’re not able to spend time with each other. Before the virus, we would gather together every month and focus on a different book, a different author, a different genre. So now we meet over Zoom and we have those same gatherings and really deep, beautiful conversations about books, about poetry, about Black feminism, about safety and protest, about health.”
Akinmowo has also started a YouTube channel to connect with supporters during this turbulent time. “My YouTube channel continues to do the work that the library was doing before Corona, which is to provide access to Black women's literature.” It also reinforces the mission of the library to promote diversity, inclusion, and literacy.
“My channel includes me reading a short story by women writers and then sharing writing prompts and discussion questions that are inspired by the story. A lot of times when people think of Black women writers they’ll think of Toni Morrison, they’ll think of Maya Angelou. Sometimes they’ll know about Alice Walker, but that’s about it. I’m trying to highlight other Black women literary geniuses that are out there.”
Patreon, she goes on to explain, has been pivotal in sustaining the Free Black Women’s Library.
“My patrons are the only reason that I’m able to not go completely broke doing this. The library series is very expensive. I have to cover storage for the books, I have a mailbox for the library, I have a team of volunteers that I buy meals and provide transportation for. Patreon helps to cover those bills.” Akinmowo also works hard to create content specifically for those supporters.
“My patrons get access to me in a way that no one else does. I do yoga classes and meditation sessions twice a week just for them that are all inspired by a Black woman poem or an essay or a piece of prose. We move through the practice in a way that’s really good for everyone involved. I want to show my appreciation by giving them special, quality content.”
Although she’s inspired by the recognition, success, and growth thus far, Akinmowo still has lofty dreams for her library. “I have a grand plan. I would like the library to become a legitimate cultural institution that is like a brick and mortar space where people can read, study, do research, use the internet, have meetings. It would be both a working space and a community resource.” She also shares a more immediate goal.
“The other part of that vision is to have a bookmobile. Part of the money from patrons goes toward transportation. Every time I have to take the library to a location, I take Uber or Lyft. That can be challenging because sometimes when they see a random Black woman standing on a corner with six boxes, they just keep driving. That would save me money because the van would be both transportation and storage. I’m obsessed with those two things.”
As the Free Black Women’s Library turns five this year, Akinmowo is proud of what it has become and the possibilities of what it could transform into next. She reiterates gratitude towards her Patreon community and how they give credence to what she does. “There’s just something very affirming about people who don’t know you personally financially committing to your idea because they believe in it. It motivates you to keep going.” Ultimately, she realizes the true success of the Free Black Women’s Libary comes back to the strength of the concept itself. “The library has always been this special kind of thing where Black women are put in a position of power.”