At the end of an academic year that began with students of color and allies protesting racial hostilities at campuses across the country, Smith Libraries worked with students to create a library project that explored the concept of safe space. The Black Unicorn project was a week-long installation in the Neilson Library Core, that celebrated the lives and experiences of people of color through literature, scholarly work, art, and media. In collaboration with Steinem Artist-in-Residence and self-described radical librarian, Bekezela Mguni, students in the PRISM (queer students of color) and QUINTA (queer international students) organizations curated a collection of 75 books from a list of 500 suggested titles by or about queer, trans, and feminist people of color.
The project transformed the typically sparse and subdued Neilson Core into a vibrant living room environment which featured student art and Mguni’s screenprints depicting black feminist icons. The space was enclosed by a West African wax print fabric patterned with birds in cages. The aesthetic changed over the course of the week, to incorporate post-it contributions from passers by, a guest book, and screen prints created by staff and students in a mid-week workshop.
The Black Unicorn exists because there are not enough spaces to celebrate our beauty, to seek refuge from the world’s brutality and for education that feeds us.- B. Mguni, Facebook Post (3/18/16)
The title of the project references a poem by the iconic black lesbian feminist author Audre Lorde, The Black Unicorn, who characterizes the black unicorn as greedy, impatient, restless, unrelenting, and “not free.” The intention of the collaborators was to provide an uplifting space in which a marginalized community on Smith’s campus would feel seen and heard. Invisibility and silencing are problematic conditions that queer and trans students of color experience on many campuses because of homophobia, transphobia, and racism. This installation became a space that they owned and defined, where their unique experiences and sources of inspiration were collected and affirmed publicly.
Students led and advertised most of the events held in the space, including an open mic, a screening of the biographical documentary A Litany for Survival about Audre Lorde, followed by a discussion of Beyonce’s Lemonade and a “study-in” by members of QUINTA and PRISM. The Library and the Steinem Initiative co-sponsored a screen printing workshop featuring selected images from Smith’s Special Collections. The week culminated in a salon to discuss Lorde’s essay “The Uses of the Erotic” (1978), and celebrate the end of the semester.
These events came together quickly, starting with conversations in early April between the Steinem Activist in Residence Bekezela Mguni, Digital Scholarship Librarian Miriam Neptune, and Tyahra Angus ’16, a student leader of PRISM who also works in Neilson Library. Tyahra invited PRISM students to participate in culling and preparing the list of proposed books. The Steinem Initiative helped to secure refreshments for events, and produced library outreach materials.
Bekezela and Miriam met with archivists from Smith’s Special Collections to identify copyright-free images that could be adapted and used as screens for the screen printing workshop. Events were advertised on the library website, Twitter, Facebook, and the 5 College Studies of Women and Gender Listserv. Flyers and emails were sent to faculty whose work touches on issues of race, gender, and sexuality. Throughout the week, additional invitations were made to both faculty and administrators to participate in specific events.
Visitors to the library left comments in a guest book and on post its provided around the space:
A true embodiment of what ‘diversity at Smith’ should look like.
Important. Powerful. Thank you for focusing on people too often rendered invisible.
Thank you, Arigato, Muchas Gracias – This space IS, period. Affirming, beautiful, acknowledging, heartening, tremendously, inspiring.
Wow! Keeps me motivated…
Comments like these expressed what many expressed about the space, that it provided an environment in which they felt recognized and understood. Some appreciated that it exposed them to literature they had never read, and topics they had yet to consider. The project achieved the librarian’s goal of demonstrating that the library has the tools to facilitate a connection between community and collections, and between intellectual ideas and lived experience.
In many ways, visitors became the project, through their presence — they co-authored the story of the space through conversations in and around the space. In the final salon, participants shared a list of things that give them life, ways to find pleasure in the face of struggle. This kind of community knowledge production and sharing was fundamental to the project’s mission.
About the Author:
Miriam Neptune is Digital Scholarship Librarian at Smith College Libraries.