The Free Black Women’s Library Comes to LA: A Talk with Director Asha Grant

Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen on Slauson in Los Angeles is buzzing with conversation. The pink neon sign above the door is radiating the energy of the room—“good vibes only”—black people fill the space, there to support black womxn and an organization that uplifts them: The Free Black Women’s Library LA. It’s their official launch party. After three-plus months of getting her baby off the ground, organization director Asha Grant is finally celebrating, talking to the night’s featured poets, putting the final touches on the merch, and greeting visitors. The launch party is a night of readings, raffles, and camaraderie that is much needed in the LA literary scene. Brought from 5,000 miles away, Asha wanted to share her home away from home with her birth city, LA.

“I grew up feeling angsty and like I was existing on the margins of the culture.”

Asha Grant grew up in LA “bouncing from what we call Mid-City now (never heard that growing up), to Inglewood, to Gardena.” She had and often still feels an uneasiness when it comes to the city she grew up in. “I grew up feeling angsty and like I was existing on the margins of the culture. I left to go to Spelman College in Atlanta, GA, and that was my formal introduction to what a black feminist space can look like when there are allocated resources. I felt so, so at home there. It was transformative. I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since.”

Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen in Los Angeles

At Spelman College, an HBCU, Asha dipped her toe into several organizations that mirror the themes and values of The Free Black Women’s Library LA. She started the Women Against Violence Brigade and was apart of Afrekete, the LGBTQ support organization on campus and FMLA (Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance). Asha left Spelman not just with life-changing experiences within those organizations but some degrees too. She majored in English and minored in comparative women’s studies and African Diaspora studies and received her masters in English Education with a concentration on Black Female Education and Literacy.

“I always say The Free Black Women’s Library found me.”

With Asha’s educational background it seemed like she was fated to find her place within The Free Black Women’s Library. One day after moving from Atlanta to New York Asha, stumbled upon OlaRonke Akinmowo’s pop-up book swap The Free Black Women’s Library, an organization whose mission is “[To curate] a black feminist interactive mobile library and biblio installation that is committed to centering and celebrating the voices of black women in literature.”

“I always say The Free Black Women’s Library found me. I was running errands in New York and came across the pop-up library at The Studio Museum and knew something special was happening. I quickly learned what it was about from a few folks who were there for the [book] swap and I knew this was a place made just for me.” After that first encounter with the library, Asha’s life had changed, “The best way I can describe my experience was to say it was so incredibly affirming. I felt like all the parts of my identity were coming together in a way that was celebratory and authentic.”

The Free Black Women’s Library LA Mission Statement

That same day Asha ran home to “Marie Kondo her bookshelf,” so she could participate in TFBWL swap. “In fact, the first donation I made to the L.A. library was from that book swap. It’s a beautiful vintage copy of Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby.”

In 2016, Asha moved back to the West Coast, but still in the back of her mind was the incredible experience she had at Akinmowo’s pop-up. She marinated on the idea of bringing the library to the West Coast. “This January brought a sort of classic ‘aha’ moment for me, where I was finally ready to take my ideas and goals seriously. That meant saying no to a lot of things and saying yes to a lot of things. One of the things I said yes to was committing to making the sister site [The Free Black Women’s Library LA] a fully functioning and affirming space for us here in Los Angeles.”

“I was definitely nervous and hoped I could respectfully continue what she started and make her proud.”

When Asha approached OlaRonke Akinmowo on creating a Los Angeles chapter of her organization, Asha said that Akinmowo was happy and interested in spreading her vision. For years now Akinmowo has been running The Free Black Women’s Library in New York, and Grant felt the pressure after receiving OlaRonke’s blessing, “I was definitely nervous and hoped I could respectfully continue what she started and make her proud.”

Asha Grant at The Free Black Women’s Library Launch Event. Photo by Camari Carter via Instagram

Diving in head first, in just four months Asha has built a literary community with black women at its center. With an online following of 5000+, and there DMs overflowing with messages of support The Free Black Womens Library LA, has found it’s tribe. With their sister Libraries collection being well into the 1,000 book range Asha aspires to match their growth, “I believe Ola has about 1,000 books in the collection? Goals. We’re growing, hoping to acquire 300 books by June for our first pop-up. We’re still sort of defining ourselves, so time will tell how each site varies to meet the different needs of each location.” The Free Black Women’s Library LA has drop boxes all over the city where people can bring their black female-authored books and donate them, they also take mailed donations of books and even have donation boxes at every event.

When I first met Asha at Bloom & Plume, a black-owned coffee shop with one of the best egg sandwiches you’ll ever have, I walked in, and she was discussing the prospect of having a donation box at that location with the owner. Clad in burgundy lipstick and a warm smile we discussed volunteer opportunities and our love of books. One of the topics we touched on was the idea that the library not only carries well-known authors like Toni Morrison, Octavia E. Butler, Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, and several others, whose work on depicting the black experience is celebrated and championed, but also one of the goals of the library is to broaden the idea of what black women write.

Book Donations from The Free Black Women’s Library LA Launch Party. Photo cred The Free Black Women’s Library Instagram

“You’re exposed to so many different genres and book topics all written by black women. Black women are writing books on everything under the sun. We’re writing cookbooks, making zines, self-help books, romance novels, sci-fi stories—we do it all. We want to broaden people’s understanding of what black women’s literature is.” On April 27th at The Free Black Women’s Library LA inaugural launch party Asha was able to see what her hard work built. “We just had our launch party and first Highlight Night last weekend, and I was overcome with emotion, it was the first time I got to see the community come to life off the screen in the ways I imagined. I’m excited for more of that.”

“Black women are writing books on everything under the sun. We’re writing cookbooks, making zines, self-help books, romance novels, sci-fi stories—we do it all.”

The Free Black Women’s Library LA isn’t just a space for black women to come together and discover black women’s voices in literature; it’s a place for anyone of any race, gender, age, to celebrate black women, and create a community that uplifts their voices. That night at Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen I heard poets like Camari Carter, Shonda Buchanan, Bridgette Bianca, and many others speak their truths through poetry. It was a night of laughter, resonance, and a gathering of like minds, an excellent jumping off point for the future of The Free Black Women’s Library LA.

When I asked Asha about the TFBWLLA’s future she shared this, “It is my hope we can collaborate with the really dope feminist orgs and book clubs in Los Angeles. There’s so much work happening already, and I’m really looking forward to mixing the magic.”

If you’d like to get involved or support The Free Black Women’s Library LA check out their Patreon, or if you want updates on events, more ways to support and book drop locations check out their Facebook and Instagram.

Jazmine Joyner

Jazmine Joyner

Jazmine Joyner is a freelance writer in Southern California. She has written for Wear Your Voice Magazine, /Film, Okayplayer, and many other sites. In her free time, she likes to write Sci-fi short stories, play video games, and read. You can follow her on Twitter @Jazmine_Joyner .