Singer and Artist Solange Debuts Free Library of Rare Books by Black Authors

Readers in the U.S. can borrow 50 titles, including collections of poems by Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes and a sci-fi novel by Octavia Butler

A composite image of Solange performing, bathed in red and purple light, in front of a collage of book covers available for rent
Singer-songwriter and visual artist Solange has launched a free library of rare works by Black authors, available to borrow on a first-come, first-served basis. Photo illustration by Meilan Solly / Photo by Rick Kern, WireImage via Getty Images / Background image courtesy of Saint Heron

Since its founding in 2013, Saint Heron, the creative studio run by musical and visual artist Solange, has produced otherworldly performance art, podcasts and video installations. But its latest project might be its most ambitious: Beginning this month, the studio’s website will act as a free library stocked with rare and out-of-print books by Black historians, writers, poets and artists.

The Saint Heron Community Library debuted Monday, reports the Black Information Network (BIN). Through the online portal, anyone in the United States can borrow a selection of 50 art anthologies, poem collections, zines, novels, history books and other titles curated by Rosa Duffy, founder of Atlanta bookstore For Keeps Books.

A selection of book covers arranged in a grid and outlined in a pattern of deep green, ochre, beige and brown
A selection of titles available to borrow via Courtesy of Saint Heron

Each loan lasts 45 days. Users are limited to checking out one title each, according to instructions on Saint Heron’s Instagram page. (As of Tuesday, all of the library’s books had already been reserved, leading at least one Instagram commentator to inquire about a waiting list.) Books will be sent to readers’ homes with the cost of shipping and return included in postage, ensuring the service remains free, reports Valentina Di Liscia for Hyperallergic.

Available tomes include a signed first edition of In Our Terribleness (1970), an experimental collection of photography and poems by avant-garde artist Amiri Baraka; a signed copy of Julianna Free’s La Tete (1996), which contains “[m]editations on Blackness and femininity through prose and photography,” per Saint Heron; a copy of poet Langston Hughes’ 1942 Shakespeare in Harlem; Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry series Children Coming Home (1991); several collections of poems by feminist critic Audre Lorde; science fiction author Octavia Butler’s 1984 novel Clay’s Ark; and art books about Fred Wilson, Martin Puryear and Adrian Piper, among others.

References to Black luminaries appear throughout the collection. Authors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, for instance, inscribed their copy of anthology My One Good Nerve: Rhythms, Rhymes, Reasons to poet Maya Angelou, reports Jem Aswad for Variety.

“We hope that by encountering these works, our community is inspired to further explore and study the breadth of artistic expression and the impact of Blackness in creative innovation throughout history,” the studio writes on its website.

Per Variety, the initial launch, or “season one,” of the community library runs through the end of November. A second season is forthcoming, so those who didn’t manage to rent a book this time around will have more opportunities to do so in the future. Once books have been returned to the community library, they will form part of Saint Heron’s “permanent collection,” notes Hyperallergic.

In an interview on the Saint Heron website, Duffy tells studio editorial director Shantel Pass that she feels frustrated when out-of-print or historical texts by Black authors are prohibitively expensive or held in inaccessible archives.

“If you’re not invited into these [archives] or you don’t feel invited into these spaces—which Black folks are often not—you can feel like this stuff doesn’t belong to you, like you’re not allowed to put your hands on it, and it’s behind closed doors,” Duffy adds.

Solange (also known by her full name, Solange Knowles), is the younger sister of mega-famous singer Beyoncé. She has earned critical acclaim for her albums A Seat at the Table (2016) and When I Get Home (2019), both of which blend rap, soul and alternative R&B elements with eclectic electronic sounds.

Outside of these releases, Solange has branched into the visual arts, creating digital and performance art that often incorporates her music or lyrics. In 2017, for Tate Modern in London, she created a digital gallery about Black womanhood inspired by the art of Betye Saar. Solange has also performed with casts of Black dancers at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, which is home to dozens of Donald Judd’s minimalist sculptures.

Solange - Things I Imagined / Down with the Clique (Official Video)

As Antwaun Sargent reported for Surface magazine last year, Solange draws inspiration from her mother’s impressive collection of Black art, as well as the art she saw as a child growing up in Houston, including the Menil Collection’s famed Rothko Chapel.

In a statement quoted by Variety, Solange says that the community library project “seek[s] to create an archive of stories and works we deem valuable.”

The artist adds, “These works expand imaginations, and it is vital to us to make them accessible to students, and our communities for research and engagement, so that the works are integrated into our collective story and belong and grow with us. I look forward to the Saint Heron library continuously growing and evolving and ... becoming a sacred space for literature and expressions for years to come.”

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