Katelyn Durst Rivas started The Free Black Women's Library in Detroit.
Katelyn Durst Rivas started The Free Black Women's Library in Detroit.

Photo by Anna Jung Hwa Photography

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“Black women write everything in every genre.”

First off, Katelyn Durst Rivas wants you to know that.

It’s her motivation for founding a local branch of the Free Black Women’s Library (FBWL). The original Free Black Women’s Library was created in 2015 by OlaRonke Akinmowo in Brooklyn, New York, as a welcoming space for book lovers to gather in the name of Black women’s stories. That first library sparked iterations across the country in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston and, as of 2019, Detroit.

Rivas, a longtime poet currently scribing her first novel, runs Detroit’s Free Black Women’s Library as a pop-up from her bike. It’s a 100% volunteer effort that she runs alone, with the hopes of fundraising enough to hire someone to manage the book archives. Currently unemployed as a result of the pandemic, Rivas is also a freelance teaching artist specializing in working with youth. 

Efforts at the FBWL-Detroit are focused on upgrading the current book mobile and implementing Black feminist education and training throughout the city. As students face the potential of another school year outside of their classrooms, the library also seeks to build partnerships with families and homeschool pods to arrange book drop-offs to youth in need of titles from their school readings lists or kids who simply want to explore new material.

The FBWL-Detroit celebrated its first birthday on Juneteenth and now boasts 400 titles that span all genres—exclusively written by Black women.

Rivas recently raised over $4,500 through a GoFundMe campaign to fund education and book events, as well as a project to build a cargo tricycle to house the library in partnership with Brightmoor Makerspace’s youth program. She aims to expand the library to 500 titles by September.

For now, patrons check out books via pop-ups where a record is taken of their contact info and the books they’ve borrowed. Still a one-woman operation, Rivas personally emails all borrowers to let them know when books are due, but admits that, due to the pandemic, the return policy isn’t super strict. 

Pandemic aside, The FBWL-Detroit partners with local businesses like Cairo Coffee, City Bird and places in Hamtramck for book returns. The library also has a P.O. Box where borrowers can return books via mail.

Like a traditional library, any person interested in borrowing a book is welcome to do so. But in so doing, they acknowledge that the Free Black Women’s Library-Detroit solely collects and shares works by Black women, and femmes — of which there is no shortage to enjoy. As Rivas says, “We could fill up the main Detroit Public Library and still not have every book a Black woman created.”

Detour spoke with Rivas about the significance of representation in literature and uplifting the breadth of Black women writers — beyond the few who make it into classroom syllabi. The interview below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Photo by Megan DeKok

Detour: Why did you start another branch of the Free Black Women’s Library in Detroit?

Rivas: I want the community to know that Black women write everything in every genre, not just Black feminism or critical race theory or books about race. But things like sci-fi and comic books, poetry, children’s books—all kinds of things.

I want personally to have that representation in my life and in my library at home, and I want it for the young people I work with who don’t get to see enough Black and Brown representation through books in school. We need to create less barriers in witnessing and being around these books.

Do you intend to have another pop-up event despite the pandemic?

I’ve talked to a few places, like Nandi’s Knowledge Café about popping up there to do a book swap, and Hey Ya’ll Detroit is hosting a children’s book fair at the end of July. So, there are different opportunities, but I’m trying to figure out the safest way for people to interact with books during the pandemic. I’m not sure if we’re going to be popping up soon because of that, but I am working out book drop off plans for children and other students.

Do you feel like there is a problem with the conversation surrounding books by Black women?

Yeah, I do. I think the biggest problem is that when I ask people, “What’s your favorite book written by a Black woman,” they don’t have an answer to that question. And that’s people of any race, it’s not just white people. A lot of people don’t have the language to talk about a Black woman’s work and if they do, it’s Toni Morrison who is really great, obviously, or maybe Alice Walker for “The Color Purple — some people have read that in high school or college. But generally, people don’t have a response to that question, so I felt the need to provide the landscape. Black women write and people need to know about the existence of their work.

What’s your response to that question? What’s your favorite book by a Black woman who isn’t Toni or Alice?

One of my favorite books is “Sister Outsider” by Audre Lorde. I also love Zadie Smith.

How do you position yourself in this work? What influence does being an author and Black woman have on the project?

Well, there’s currently not a space for my books in the library yet because I didn’t start this to promote my own work. It’s about uplifting Black women writers all over — and not just the bigger names. The library collects newer and local authors, too. But yeah, I am doing this because I’m a Black woman.

I’m also doing this because when I was working on my graduate thesis last year, [a lit review entitled “From Manipulated Objects to Self-empowered Subjects: Radical Self-Care for African American Women”], I studied a bunch of books — at least 80, but probably closer to 100 — on Black feminism, self-care and the history of oppression on Black women and how it’s compounded between being both Black and woman.

From that experience, I got a lot of books that I had no idea existed. I read books that I had wanted to read for a long time; some of them I already had and some of them I just knew of; but I was so inspired to have them in a place where I could see them physically. To see the covers and who wrote them — all Black women’s faces on the backs — made me feel empowered. So, I really want to bring this as a space that centers Black women because I desire it as a Black woman but I know that other people do too — and it’s not just Black women.

I really want everyone to interact with this library. It’s truly for anyone.

A Free Black Women's Library-Detroit pop-up.
Photo by Katelyn Durst Rivas

Five titles Rivas recommends from her library:

I Love My Hair” by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley
More Than Enough” by Elaine Welteroth
The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo
Salvage the Bones” by Jesmyn Ward
Unashamed: Musings of a Fat, Black Muslim” by Leah Vernon

Learn more about the Free Black Women’s Library-Detroit on Facebook and Instagram.

The Free Black Women’s Library-Detroit is always accepting donations of books in every genre by Black women and femmes.

Questions about donations can be emailed to thefreeblackwomenslibrary.det@gmail.com. You can donate books from the library’s wishlist online through Pages Bookshop, and donations can also be mailed directly to:

The Free Black Women’s Library-Detroit
P.O. Box 10446
Detroit, MI 48210

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter and freelance writer with a heart for people and their stories. She is the host of COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience, a 2020 project between WDET and Documenting Detroit which won an Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Innovation. Get in touch at @shes_cwise...