Books and Bekezela: The Black Unicorn

Photo by Emmai Alaquiva
Photo by Emmai Alaquiva

Nestled in a storefront in Allentown along Warrington Avenue resides the Black Unicorn Project.  The first time I entered before I even ran my finger along the binders of books that lined the shelves, I was greeted with the same anticipation that I feel anytime I walk into a grand library-I felt overwhelmed by possibility.  I wanted to learn what it was all about so I connected with Bekezela Mguni, a self-described radical librarian and activist, who also happens to be the creator of the Black Unicorn Project.

Bekezela was as welcoming as the space she has created.  Black Unicorn exists to showcase literary contributions of Black women, queer, trans, and gender nonconforming people.  As Bekezela told me, “Our lives are worth documenting.”  The space has been created “to lift the narratives of Black women and queer people,” she said.

To truly understand the significance of this place, I had to first learn more about Bekezela Mguni-and what led to her developing the project.  She was born in Trinidad and told me of her time reading as a child at the Carnegie Library in San Fernando.  That in and of itself is a testament to the reach and inspiration of Carnegie Libraries, and her someday connection to Pittsburgh.  Bekezela’s mom moved to the states and started sending books back to her in Trinidad to “feed” her, as Bekezela put it.  While still a child, she immigrated to Queens and later in adolescence, found herself in Pittsburgh.

Bekezela spent college summers working for Freedom School at Lincoln Elementary, a partnership between the Kingsley Association and Lincoln.  She was trained at the Alex Haley Farm in Tennessee for this work, and later by the Ella Bakers trainers, in how to deliver the Integrated Reading Curriculum.   The training taught the history of why literacy is so connected to liberty for Black people, along with content related to Civil and Human rights in this country.  Bekezela was immersed in learning important social justice practices and found her experience led her to becoming an activist-with even more enthusiasm to learn.

After spending an hour with her, it was evident what a deep knowledge and passion she has for everything that the Black Unicorn encompasses.   Her enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge quickly became contagious.  For me, listening to her pass along her experience through story-telling was invigorating.  I wanted to learn more myself.  I wanted to be able to connect to the lives and contributions of the people she was telling me about.  I wanted to learn how to make a difference myself-how to give back whatever I possibly can to the LGBTQ community-and even more-I wanted to hear the stories of all of the incredible Black women that I had not heard before that day.

Photo by Emmai Alaquiva

Bekezela shared the proverb with me, “When an elder dies, a library burns down.”  It’s true the significance that oral tradition carries, especially when in tandem with ink lined books.  The Black Unicorn Project is a powerful movement beyond its walls.  But for what it’s worth, I hope that her temporary pop-up becomes a permanent home, with the ability to further empower the lives of Black women and the queer community for years to come.