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The Free Black Women's Library is Looking for a Reading Room in Brooklyn

For the past six years the library has been mobile, with the collection traveling to galleries, block parties and churches.
The Free Black Women’s Library Photo: Supplied

For the past six years, OlaRonke Akinmowo has been running The Free Black Women's Library -- a mobile library that has become a staple in its Bed-Stuy community.

Over the years, interdisciplinary artist, yoga teacher, set decorator and cultural worker Akinmowo has used the library as a space to celebrate the brilliance and diversity of Black women writers by focusing on their works. And she has spread those works by installing the library in art galleries, community centers and more.

Curious readers are invited to access the collection by bringing in another book to trade for something else. While not all the books in the collection focus on feminism, she said having a library full of Black women authors celebrated their stories.

"I was doing a lot of community building and activism work, and working with artists," Akinmowo told BK Reader.

"I really wanted to do a project that centers and celebrates Black women specifically, from my point of empowerment and creativity and intelligence as opposed to abuse, trauma or victimhood,"

While the library moved to a virtual space with the pandemic, Akinmowo is now looking for physical space in Bed-Stuy -- where it all started -- to open a reading room. 

"Being from Bed-Stuy, I wanted something that took up space," Akinmowo said. "It was really important to me because a lot of the violence that happens via gentrification, felt like people were kind of being pushed out."

She said having The Free Black Women's Library pop up in locations across Bed-Stuy was, "a really good way to establish that Black people are still here, Black people live here, and that Black people deserve to live here."

That doesn't mean that non-Black people aren't welcome to enjoy the library. The only thing Akinmowo demands is respect for the diversity of Black women authors. The Free Black Women's Library is entrenched in Black society. From the barbershops, community gardens, churches, block parties, and even galleries, the library has become a part of community spaces and grown from 100 books to now over 3,000 books and counting. 

But like any issue in Brooklyn real estate, finding a permanent space for the library has been difficult. Besides the sky-high costs of rent, there is confusion around the purpose of using the space for anything but a business.

"There is a very capitalist mindset that if you're going to be taking up space you need to be generating some kind of profit," Akinmowo said.

"That's not what the library is about. It's a community resource that is meant to provide space for people to use the books, engage with the collection, and connect with other people to read, to have workshops to learn from one another. It's not a store."

What started off as a local mobile library, has — thanks to the pandemic — become a global entity. As events moved online, the reach of the library's audience increased and went global, with book lovers now tuning in from Germany, South Africa, Kenya, and even Brazil.

She said the experience of having the international audience made her realize how privileged we are in Brooklyn, being able to walk to a public library, when in many other countries that just isn't the case.

She said an organization in Brazil even opened its own free Black library after being inspired by her work.

"It's a huge deal for the Black women organizing it to focus on Black women authors and address the issue of colorism in their country," she said. "We were almost in tears. I think what I'm doing is radical, but for them, it's downright revolutionary."

While Akinmowo is excited for the intimacy of in-person readings, she'll still hold virtual readings and the online monthly book club to keep international connections alive, and she's hoping with the reading room, events can be streamed live.

If you're looking to support Akinmowo and the Free Black Women's Library, you can subscribe to their Patreon and donate to their GoFundMe.