OlaRonke Akinmowo is a Brooklyn-based artist who first developed the Free Black Women’s Library, a pop-up trading library which offers books written by Black women. The project was first created five years ago when Akinmowo decided to create a social art project, based focussing on work by Black women.
OlaRonke Akinmowo’s world opened up when she was first introduced to Black women writers during her adolescence. “The first time I read Toni Morrison, it sparked something in my mind,” Akinmowo told Bust Magazine, “Like, ‘Wow! You can read a whole book and there doesn’t need to be any white people in it, and Black girls like you can be the focus and the star of the story.” So, when she set out to create a project focussing on amplifying the voices of Black women, it is no surprise that books and literature seemed like a good fit.
Akinmowo was tired of the stereotypical Black women that were being portrayed in films, TV, literature and the media in general, and “as a single mom raising a Black daughter, I wanted better for her and her friends,” Akinmowo explained.
She added, “I wanted a social art project on women and girls—something that felt empowering, healing, nurturing, and celebratory. I just wanted to change those narratives, and I felt like one way to do that is to center our voices.”
To get the ball rolling on her library project, Akinmowo started spreading the word about the Free Black Women’s Library, asking for recommendations and donations. Soon, people worldwide were sending her books, in fact, Akinmowo admitted that she, “still get[s] books in the mail from people all over the country and all over the world.”
Now that the library is fully stocked, Akinmowo hosts book swaps at least once a month in locations around the city from the local YMCA to a gallery space in Midtown. People who come along and bring a book by a Black woman can then take a new book from the library’s collection of roughly 1,500 books, so there’s plenty to choose from.
Akinmowo explains that the library’s name, Free Black Women’s Library, signifies more than the simple fact that the books are free and no money exchanges hands. The name also references the freedom of the voices. Akinmowo stated, “I named the project the Free Black Women’s Library because it’s layered—being free, being liberated as a Black woman is work. It’s something we have to turn into a ritual and do daily. Whether it’s meditating or masturbating, we have to do things that touch on our freedom and give us access to it in a way that doesn’t feel complicated.”
Over the past five years since the first library was established, other branches have popped up in Los Angeles, Detroit, and Atlanta and even further afield outside the United States of America.
“There’s definitely a Black women’s renaissance happening right now,” Akinmowo said, “I’m just so excited and so happy for all of the young Black girls that are growing up in this moment who get to witness the many ways Black women can take up space.”
Build Your Own Library of Black Women Authors with these Recommendations from Akinmowo: