Black Abundance: Mutual Aid and Community Support Then and Now

As crises grip our country, Black artists and communities have demonstrated what it looks like to show up and support each other. The Laundromat Project Executive Director Kemi Ilesanmi on legacies of Black abundance, self-sufficiency, and community aid.

I have two sheroes who exemplify Black abundance. They each quietly contributed what they had to help shape a world towards Black dignity and excellence. In 1995, after decades of saving money earned from washing other people’s clothes, Osceola McCarty donated $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi to support scholarships for Black students. Her action inspired others in her hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi to do the same, almost tripling her original donation. Her scholarship still supports Black students today. During the Civil Rights Movement, Georgia Gilmore helped power the pivotal Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–56 by cooking and selling a mean meal of pork chops, stewed greens, peach pie, and other soul food specialities. She organized other women to participate, and they called themselves The Club from Nowhere. The money they raised by selling their dishes at local churches, cab stands, and beauty salons helped finance alternative transportation systems—cars, wagons, gas, insurance, repairs—during the 381-day boycott. Even with modest means, these visionaries understood their own power to make a difference in Black life and to inspire others to join them. It is only fitting to remember them both during Black Philanthropy Month.

In this time of twin pandemics that are ravaging Black and brown communities, including artists and cultural workers, I am buoyed by current examples of Black generosity and self-determination. So many folks have risen to this moment by setting up mutual aid and care networks that build on Black legacies of collective support, including susus, social aid clubs, and Black Panther principles. Like so many, artists looked around to their family, friends, neighbors, community organizations and immediately understood the stakes. Many decided to act.

When COVID-19 hit, Olaronke (Ola) Akinmowo took a dream that had been percolating for some time and decided to launch a mini-grant program in April. Ola, who works mainly as a set decorator for film and TV, initially took some of her own earnings from a consulting job to seed five grants of $250 each to single Black mother creatives anywhere in the country. As founder of The Free Black Women’s Library (TFBWL) with a large social media following, Ola also posted her intention to her network. They showed up and showed out, making generous donations that have enabled Ola to make grants totaling over $32,000 to 132 Black single mothers who are also painters, writers, dancers, filmmakers, doulas, chefs, tattoo artists, farmers, yoga instructors, and more. They have used the funds to pay utility bills, buy medicine, reboot websites, feed their children, and more. They also used this support to make art.

For Ola, the Sister Outsider Relief Grant is a way to say, “I believe in you; I see you, mama” to all the Black women making magic everyday in a world that does not often appreciate them in their fullness. It is also an affirmation of her own power to manifest dreams, live her values, and activate community. In her world vision, Black mothers matter and they can win. It is with that wind in her sail that she is launching the third application round on August 30: stay updated by checking out TFBWL’s social media. She aims to grant a total of $50,000, including the prior two rounds. If you want to support, send donations via Venmo to @olaronke, or via CashApp to $TFBWL.

As if on a similar wavelength, two other artists have taken this moment to share their art and galvanize their communities in support of Black and progressive causes. Within days of George Floyd’s murder, Paul Mpagi Sepuya made a list of organizations that support Black lives, LGBTQIA+ folks, voter fairness, criminal justice reform, community arts, and more. He then asked his network of gallerists, curators, collectors, and social media followers to back up their #BLM social media posts with concrete contributions to Black communities. He created an open print edition of one of his beautiful photographs and sent it as a thank you acknowledgement to anyone who “invested” at least $250 in any of the organizations he had identified. All a person had to do was send him a receipt. In just two months, Paul raised $217,000 in total, including $8,000 for The LP. In like fashion, as Black Lives Matter protests and demands unfolded around us, Damien Davis identified 13 Black arts and LGBTQIA+ organizations that he wanted to support right now. With Benefit Suite, he paired each organization with a unique sculpture of an Afro pick / power button named after a Black person killed by police or vigilante violence. The LP was thus honored to lift up the memory and life of Sandra Bland. For each piece, a collector had to make a donation of at least $1,800 to the organization. Damien sold all 13 works and raised over $30,000 in less than two weeks. Each of these stories are examples of artists and cultural workers leaning into Black abundance as birthright.

Like Ms. McCarty and Ms. Gilmore before them, Ola, Paul, and Damien recognize that mobilizing resources is a liberation technology that can be used to affirm and support Black lives and entities. They also understand the pain and the possibilities of this moment and so brought what they had—art, ingenuity, passion, networks—to the ongoing fight for Black culture and justice. Like so many others today who are marching, demanding, and dreaming Black futures, they are creating the modern scaffolding for long-term sustainability of Black networks and organizations. In kinship, I’m also deeply inspired by all Black cultural workers who are owning their power as resource organizers, from Black Artist Fund and Jar of Love Fund to See In Black, and many more. Their collective generosity and actions are the embodiment of words by poet Gwendolyn Brooks: “We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” Àṣẹ.

Header image: Georgia Gilmore, via S.S. Seay Sr. Educational Foundation.