The Free Black Women’s Library Celebrates Black Women Authors

courtesy OlaRonke Akinmowo

The Free Black Women’s Library started as a mobile project and now has its own community space in Brooklyn.

A love letter to Bed-Stuy.” That’s how OlaRonke Akinmowo first framed the mobile book-sharing project she began in 2015 in the Brooklyn neighborhood where she was born and now lives with her daughter. The premise of The Free Black Women’s Library is simple: take a book, leave a book—and help to continuously enrich a public, freely accessible collection of titles by Black women or nonbinary authors. Readers of all ages and backgrounds have turned up on stoops and in community gardens to sort through memoirs, poetry anthologies, fantasies, and stacks of canonical works by Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. “Bed-Stuy is where I’ve found my most significant human connections,” Akinmowo said. “The Black diaspora is so strong here, and that’s part of what the library represents—different flavors of people. It’s something I’m trying to nurture and celebrate.”

courtesy OlaRonke Akinmowo

OlaRonke Akinmowo with books sent from a donor in Colorado to The Free Black Women’s Library.

In 2022, she deepened her commitment to that vision by signing a five-year lease on a narrow Bed-Stuy storefront where the library now resides. A year on, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves line the walls, and a children’s section occupies the rear. There’s a free store for clothing, household goods, and other non-book items by the entrance and a backyard garden alive with flowers and herbs. The move to a brick-and-mortar space, which was supported by crowdfunding, was partially one of practicality: The library’s collection had grown to well over 5,000 books, meaning Akinmowo had to transport a selection in and out of storage for each pop-up. At the same time, she observed the joy the meetups brought her neighbors and began dreaming up a dedicated space where people could gather without having to buy anything—a growing need in the historically Black and rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

“People wanted to have a space where they could just be with the books long term, with other people, and also chill,” Akinmowo says. “I felt it was really important to have a Black cultural community space in Bed-Stuy. Unfortunately, it seemed like whatever spaces could’ve been for us were disappearing and turned into wine shops and coffee shops.”

courtesy OlaRonke Akinmowo

Books in The Free Black Women’s Library.

About seventy to eighty percent of visitors come from the neighborhood or nearby Crown Heights and Bushwick. The rest arrive from other New York City boroughs or travel from as far as New Jersey or Connecticut. Some spend hours browsing the volunteer-managed collection, engaging with generations of writers across genres: Nella Larsen, Assata Shakur, Jamaica Kincaid, Michaela Coel. Others show up for events, whether book launches or figure-drawing classes or double-dutch workshops. Some visitors share that they don’t like to read, a sentiment that Akinmowo has come to realize may stem from reading trauma—a term popularized by librarians Julia Torres and Julie Stivers that refers to how reading can be a source of stress or pain. Such trauma, which disproportionately affects marginalized communities, results from “a rigid, oppressive school system that might force them to read arbitrary, boring, and unrelatable material; or neurodivergence; or lack of access to proper guidance,” Akinmowo said. “There is also the fact that reading was illegal for Black people in this country for a very long time.”

courtesy OlaRonke Akinmowo

A pop-up of the mobile version of The Free Black Women’s Library in in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, in 2015.

As such, The Free Black Women’s Library is a reparative project as much as it is an educational one. And the work feels even more urgent, Akinmowo said, given rising condemnation of critical race theory and bans of books with LGBTQ+ themes and those by writers like Morrison and bell hooks. “The suppression of knowledge is an old-school tactic used to disempower folks, and it’s happening again with the book bans,” Akinmowo said. “It makes me want to be even more aggressive about making sure that their words and thoughts are out in the world. If these books are disappearing from schools, having them here is critical.”

She would love to reintroduce the mobile library one day to increase the library’s outreach. But for now, she’s excited to cultivate the potential of her storefront, “where people can come and just be—and meet somebody who has a passion for drawing, painting, sewing, quilting, speculative fiction, Black feminist theory, or abolition,” she said. “I want to have a space of care for everyone. The collective care is important.”