A review of Solidarity Book Project, a collaborative art project supporting access to books for Black and Indigenous communities, directed by Sonya Clark
Solidarity Book Project
Sonya Clark, Amherst College
Zanice Bond, Tuskegee University
Andrew W. Smith
The Solidarity Book Project (SBP) is a collaborative project at the intersection of art and activism, working to support access to books in Black and Indigenous communities. Initiated in 2020, the project is invested in the ways Black and Indigenous writers theorize solidarity between and within communities. It was envisioned and directed by Sonya Clark, an award-winning artist and professor of art and the history of art, in response to Amherst College’s Bicentennial—an anniversary that also marks 200 years of Amherst on Indigenous land; the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Black Studies department at Amherst; and the 5th anniversary of Amherst Uprising, a major moment of student activism led by Black women. Amir Denzel Hall is the lead writer and project manager, and Andrew W. Smith is the lead digital designer and developer. This work is also supported by a growing and committed community of artists, activists, and scholars.
SBP pushes on the capacity for digital platforms to support ecologies of solidarity between and within communities. The project grapples with the many ways digital technologies mediate social relations, and how this mediation exists as both a disruptive and generative force for understanding solidarity as a practice of community building. The project is also interested in how online spaces alter our individual and collective modalities of self-representation, and considers what is at stake in building networks of art and activism that see this shift as one into a realm of possibility, rather than as an obstacle. Through a public call to action circulated using social media hashtags, the project invites a global audience to work as collaborators through #SolidarityReflection, #SolidarityReading, and #SolidaritySculpting. #SolidarityReflection called on participants to reflect on what solidarity means to them and to share moments of witnessing solidarity in their own lives; #SolidarityReading called on participants to perform public readings from books that taught them about solidarity; and #SolidaritySculpting called on participants to sculpt the iconic symbol of the solidarity fist into books that taught them about solidarity, using an artistic book carving method taught online by Sonya Clark.
Each hashtag represents a different methodology for publicly committing to the work of solidarity, ultimately materializing this commitment through the submission of digital and analog materials to the project. For SBP, the hashtags function as a public archive and discourse, an open practice of world-building and future-imagining that considers the possibilities that emerge within a set of relations guided by solidarity. The collected materials, including video, text, and sculpted books, were gathered into a physical exhibit, The Solidarity Monument, at Amherst College’s Frost Library in Fall 2021. This solidarity monument constituted a library within a library, featuring a collection of books selected and sculpted by a global community of activists, artists, and scholars theorizing the meaning of solidarity within and between their communities.
The physical exhibit for SBP materializes the virtual network brought together through the project, reflecting the movement and coexistence across the physical and virtual spaces where current practices of solidarity are often engaged, and representing a community-generated understanding of solidarity. SBP’s online virtual exhibit has been developed by the Immersive Realities Labs for the Humanities (irLh) and lives at SolidarityBookProject.org. This virtual exhibit extends The Solidarity Monument beyond the physical exhibit and acts as a public archive of the collaborative artwork, activism, and community-generated understandings of solidarity that emerged from the project. The virtual exhibit includes 15 original essays and poems reflecting on solidarity, including from writers such as Shayla Lawson and Lisa Brooks, as well as resources for organizations to start their own SBP projects. By winter 2022, the physical and virtual SBP exhibits include a total of 2700+ reflections, 35+ readings, and over 240 sculpted books.
Beyond community-building and artmaking, SBP also focused on fundraising. We partnered with Amherst College, an institution that has benefited from the legacy of colonialism, to match participation in each of the three hashtags with gifts to organizations supporting literacy, education, book knowledge, and cultural preservation in Black and Indigenous communities. As a result, a total of $100,000 was distributed across the following organizations: the American Indian College Fund, Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, Gedakina, Indigo Arts Alliance, Literacy Lab, Ohketeau Cultural Center, Tomaquag Museum, United Negro College Fund, and the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project.
Imagine entering a space filled with history books, memoirs, collections of poetry, cookbooks, novels, works of nonfiction, and other books from all over the world that are grounded in the work of solidarity. These are books you might find in your favorite bookstore. They are not limited by genre and are all at your disposal. Imagine entering the space and learning that writers, scholars, students, artists, activists, and everyday people have gathered in this space to make art, talk about solidarity, and read excerpts from these amazing books—all while generating funds for Black and Indigenous communities. This might be overwhelming at first, until you realize you have entered an evolving digital space.
The Solidarity Book Project was developed by Sonya Clark, an innovative fiber and textile artist who is currently a professor at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts. Clark has described this collaborative digital art project as both a fundraiser and as a site for activism, developed when she was approached to design a piece of art to commemorate the institution’s bicentennial. She took the opportunity to build a grassroots project that would not only inform and inspire, but also engage readers while contributing financially to Black and Indigenous communities. Using Instagram and Facebook as platforms, Clark and her core team developed multiple opportunities for participatory teaching and learning, and more than 1000 books and readings have become more than metaphors for solidarity and allyship.
First, Clark invited individuals to select a book that contributed to their understanding of solidarity. Then, using the pages from the book, they were asked to sculpt the iconic fist representing solidarity into the book and mail it to the project. Participants could watch instructional videos of the sculpting process, and if they were unable to pay for postage, the project would pay for the shipping. In Fall 2021, the sculpted books mailed to the Solidarity Book Project became a part of a solidarity monument housed in Frost Library on the campus of Amherst College, offering yet another site for introspection and reflection. It celebrates literacy, community, and collaboration and reminds audience-participants of the work still needed to be done.
In addition to the hands-on sculpting component, individuals, including well-known writers, submitted videos sharing their definitions of solidarity. Similar to The Free Black Women’s Library annual “Library Reading Challenge,” the Solidarity Book Project incorporates videos of participants reading excerpts from the books they selected. These videos, circulated on social media platforms, could entertain or intrigue the casual follower. They could also become useful and accessible resources for Instagram and Facebook users, but the breadth of the project does not stop on social media. Classrooms and community centers (with Internet access) worldwide now have access to a growing archive that will foster learning and intellectual inquiry. This project is an important one as it may also spark conversations on intersectionality among allies. It will provide space for Afro-Indigenous as well as Black and Indigenous communities to examine their shared, but sometimes contested, histories.