Written by: Vaishnavi Peyyety, Red & Black Current Events Staff Writer
Bekezela Mguni identifies as a queer activist and has worked as doula and an activist in the Reproductive Justice Movement. (Courtesy Regan Carlson)
The Black Unicorn Project: Libraries and Social Justice was a discussion led by Bekezela Mguni, a queer Trinidadian artist and educator, during Washington & Jefferson College’s 2023 Symposium on Democracy. Mguni moved to the states at 10 years old and currently lives in East Pittsburgh. Mguni’s work focuses on creating welcoming library spaces that are geared toward building a more just and equitable space where people can celebrate their beauty. Their libraries are centered around the literary work of Black women, Black queer individuals, and marginalized communities.
Librarians and archivists hold a great deal of power and responsibility. To fulfill this duty, Mguni decided to create a space to highlight Black experiences because stories and the ability to tell stories–especially from the unrecognized point of view—are essential, as many stories told from the traditional perspective have failed to share the truth behind people’s actual experiences. Mguni is also greatly involved in the reproductive justice movement and is an Education Program Director at Dreams of Hope, an organization that validates the voices of LGBTQ adolescents through art and gardening.
Mguni started by paying homage to her ancestors and sharing a speech from Nikky Finney, an American poet. When we think about democracy and oppression, we may take for granted our situation and believe we are “okay.” But Mguni brings to light the fact that our liberation is greatly intertwined with others and until “others are free, I am not free” and vice versa. Black people were the only group of people who were barred from becoming literate. Taking this history into account when analyzing the name of Washington and Jefferson College is key to understanding the systemic oppression this institution is built on. And although one may believe that only remnants of this discrimination exist at our university, we must acknowledge this dark history and recognize how it affects students today.
“And although one may believe that only remnants of this discrimination exist at our university, we must acknowledge this dark history and recognize how it affects students today.”
Mguni shared readings from “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” a fictional take on the history of Washington’s teeth-collecting practices. This story is a reminder of the horrifying reality that Black and African American individuals have been treated as if every part of their body did not belong to them in the past and in the present, through practices and policies such as the overturning of Roe v Wade, which disproportionately forces Black individuals to bear children that they may not be prepared for or the morbidity rates from the Black maternal health crisis. Mguni even mentioned how this nation was populated due to the sexual assault of Black women by slave owners. This stark contrast between what most people believe and the actual truth is jarring and needs to be mitigated. Mguni is addressing this gap through its libraries.
“This story [“The Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington”] is a reminder of the fact that every part of a Black person’s body did not belong to them in the past and in the present.”