Pop-up library celebrates black women

By Meggie Morris

Earlier this month, Scheherazade Tillet watched an older, African-American man take the stage at Breathing Room, a recurring event that inspires proactive conversation about transformative justice through art and performance.

Holding Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow,” the man admitted to the audience he had only just finished it, before inviting the youngest person in the room to take it from him, said Tillet, an artist and feminist leader. The memory has stuck with her.

“This is the moment of passing the baton, but we’re passing the book,” she said. “We’re recycling the knowledge that we have… We don’t do this enough in this movement. We take up space. But that’s our role: to share knowledge and collaborate with these amazing youth.”

The movement had a chance to do just that when the Free Black Women Library temporarily assembled in Hyde Park Saturday. Stocked wall to wall with books written by, for or about black women and girls, the pop-up was designed to celebrate and share the experiences of black women in particular.

Although black women are central to important issues facing their communities and to the movements combating them, they are often ignored, said the event’s architect Mariame Kaba. Uplifting black women in this way is therefore vital to the growth of movements like Black Lives Matter, she added.

“It’s really important that we… always find ways that our stories and our lives are centered within the narratives that are told in our community,” Kaba said. “Way too often what ends up happening is black women and girls are marginalized within our own communities.”

Originally from New York, Kaba has been organizing and educating in Chicago for over 20 years. The Free Black Women Library was inspired by a similar, monthly pop-up in New York City, and scheduled during Black History Month, said Kaba, founding director of Project NIA, a community-based initiative addressing youth crime, violence and incarceration.

“We wanted to make sure that during this month, black women’s experiences, contributions and intellectual labor is lifted, and centered, and central to black freedom,” Kaba said.

Black women of all ages dropped into the library throughout the day to browse books donated by volunteers from across the city. Transferring knowledge and experiences to inspire and privilege the younger generation of female organizers was important to attendees, who said the beauty of books is that they are not only symbolic of this goal, but also a tangible display of it.

“We’re in a moment where young people are being recognized as leaders,” said Page May, who said she planned to peruse books all day. “Mariame does that beautifully, and this I think is a good display of it, where the first thing you walk in on is children’s books.”

“It’s nice to see this collection of what black women’s narratives and stories look like,” said Tillet, a member of the pop-up’s organizing committee. “Our stories aren’t being told, but we do have them. So what would it look like when we see them all together?”

The positive impact of events like these are deeply personal as well as collectively inspiring, said participant Hannah Baptiste.

“This is very uplifting that we’re recognizing… all kinds of labor that black women do to make the world that they want,” she said. “That’s what’s being written about in all of these books, and that’s what we’re also actively doing and so I feel like it’s just a big celebration of that.”

The Free Black Women Library featured a range of books written by, for and about black women, including a sprawling selection of children’s books. (Meggie Morris/Medill)