Solidarity for Posterity

Amherst at 200In which we look back at the Bicentennial’s community-wide anti-racism collaboration: the Solidarity Book Project

Photos by Maria Stenzel and Jianing Li; text by Katharine Whittemore

“Some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don’t fight racism with racism—we’re gonna fight racism with solidarity.”

So said Fred Hampton, the Chicago Black Panther Party leader whose life centers the 2021 film Judas and the Black Messiah. Amherst, too, has tried to fight racism with solidarity—and this year that happened, in part, through a communal art project called the Solidarity Book Project.

It was the brainchild of Sonya Clark ’89, the Winifred L. Arms Professor in the Arts and Humanities and professor of art and the history of art. And it was catalyzed by a request from President Biddy Martin and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein. They asked Clark to conceive a special art project for Amherst’s Bicentennial.

As she has done in her own art, Clark went bold and interactive: she involved members of the Amherst community (and beyond) to combine self-crafted art with acts of reflection, via the iconic symbol of solidarity—a fist raised in protest and support—which was shaped from a book which shaped the mind of the person who shaped the fist. (See how to sculpt a book in this instructional video.)

Every time someone submitted reflections or sculpted books, the College pledged funds, and now $100,000 has been committed to organizations that support Black and Indigenous communities. Recipients include national organizations like the United Negro College Fund and regional ones like the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project. Says Clark of the Solidarity Book Project and its impact on Amherst and the world it inhabits: “As we are making and reflecting, we are also giving.”

A circular book display case showcasing books that have been sculptured for the solidarity project

Installation Inspiration. The project launched early in 2021, and this fall, the books were collected and put on display in Frost library. First-year students, shown here, attended presentations by Clark in November. This semicircular shelf display was built by Amherst carpenter Michael Chesworth. On the perimeter, the fists rise together in solidarity. In the interior, you can see the book covers and spines. There are a total of 272 books in the display, such as Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life, sculpted by Yael Rice, assistant professor of art and the history of art and of Asian languages and civilizations and Sonia Sotomayor’s My Beloved World, sculpted by Felix Wu ’21.

  Professor Sony Clark with a copy of Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War, by Lisa Brooks

Honoring Indigenous History. Clark sculpted many books, including Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War, by Lisa Brooks, the Henry S. Poler ’59 Presidential Teaching Professor of English and American Studies. In 2019, Our Beloved Kin won the prestigious Bancroft Prize for books on American history and diplomacy. Brooks’s heritage is Abenaki and Polish and her book, she says, “reframes the historical landscape of ‘the first Indian War,’ more widely known as King Philip’s War (1675-8).”

  Sonya Clark leads a group during Orientation 2021 through the process of sculpting a book for the solidarity project

Table of Contents. To alter one’s chosen book, a process of folding and cutting, is slow business, up to eight hours’ worth of effort. Clark helped many groups in class and at campus events including Orientation, shown here. “The project might take as long as it would take you to read the book,” says Clark. “And then how long does it take for that book to get in you and change you? Is it immediate, or is it slower than that? And then there’s also solidarity work itself, which is slow and intentional.”

  A quote by Amir Hall '17 about why he selected the novel A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara for the solidarity project

To Friendship. Amir Hall ’17, a writer and project manager for the Solidarity Book Project, sculpted several books, including A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara. He says of the novel, “Perhaps my favorite moment is when Willem notices Jude’s lacings are untied before Jude does, and bends to tie them, because Jude, whose mobility is limited by a severe spinal injury, isn’t able to do so himself. It was amazing to see men capable of caring for each other outside of romantic relationships. Something about that specific moment feels like what solidarity is—this all-encompassing awareness of and care for another’s safety and ability; a filling of another’s gaps.”

  Jordan Gomez ’25 and Langston Prince ’25  work on the book sculpting

Hands On. Jordan Gomez ’25 (left) wields scissors while Langston Prince ’25 (right) creases page tabs in a graphic novel. Eventually, the Solidarity Book Project received sculpted books from Hawaii, Texas, Colorado, Florida, Rhode Island, Georgia, Canada, Hong Kong, Uganda, Ecuador and places in between.

Rachel Hendrickson ’25 (left) sculpts Girl, Woman, Other. Sophie Kubik ’23 (right) sculpts Queenie.

Two London Novels. “White people are only required to represent themselves, not an entire race,” writes Bernardine Evaristo, author of Girl, Woman, Other. Evaristo was the first Black woman to win the Booker Prize, in 2019. Queenie, by the Jamaican British author Candice Carty-Williams, has been called “Bridget Jones’ Diary meets Americanah.” Rachel Hendrickson ’25 (left) sculpts Girl, Woman, Other. Sophie Kubik ’23 (right) sculpts Queenie.

Tyra Redwood ’25 sculpting a copy of Anger is a Gift

“Use Anger to Get Things Done.” Tyra Redwood ’25 chose to sculpt Mark Oshiro’s award-winning 2018 YA debut novel, set in Oakland, Calif. It’s about a Black teen and his friends—other teens of color, diverse in gender and sexuality—who work together to protest acts of systemic violence in their community. As one character’s mother says, invoking the novel’s title, “Anger is a gift. Remember that. You gotta grasp on to it, hold it tight and use it as ammunition. You use that anger to get things done instead of just stewing in it.”

  Claire Macero ’25 holds a copy of The Immortal Life of Heniretta Lacks

In the DNA. Claire Macero ’25 sculpted The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. It tells the true story of the Black woman whose “HeLa” cells lived on after her death from cancer, and were pivotal in creating scientific breakthroughs from the polio vaccine to gene mapping to in vitro fertilization and more. It’s also a story of exploitation and marginalization: the Lacks family reaped none of the profits that science gained. As one of Henrietta’s children said of her mother’s cells: If they’ve “done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors?”

Close up of books on a shelf; each book has a solidarity fist sculpted into it

Shelf Care. Some of the solidarity fists were fabricated in group settings on campus, while others were made solo. The idea was to pick a book that honored an idea of solidarity. “When our work comes together, our voices come together,” Clark says. “What does it mean to have a multivocal solidarity? What does it mean to have everybody’s book? They all have fists, but each is by a different hand who made it. There’s power in that, too.”

A woman examines the solidarity book exhibit

“When You Learn, Teach. When You Get, Give.” So said a character from Maya Angelou’s landmark memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, one of the books on display. It was sculpted by Priscilla Lee ’25. Pictured standing is Jacinta Smith ’25, an intern for the Solidarity Book Project, who gazes at the titles within the installation. They include Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, sculpted by Matt McGann, dean of admission and financial aid and Kassia St. Clair’s The Secret Lives of Color, sculpted by Christopher Durr, assistant professor of chemistry.

  Jacinta Smith '25 with a copy of Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory.

“Chosen to Carry Part of the Sky on Your Head.” Jacinta Smith ’25, an intern for the Solidarity Book Project, sculpted a copy of Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory, which is set in Haiti and New York. “They are the people of creation,” writes Danticat. “Their maker… gives them the sky to carry because they are so strong. These people do not know who they are, but if you see a lot of trouble in your life, it is because you were chosen to carry part of the sky on your head.”

  Luke Munch '25 with a copy of Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Solomonic. “I chose Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison, because of the way it made me think more critically about the intersection between socioeconomic freedom and race in the United States,” writes Luke Munch ’25. “Song of Solomon helped illuminate how others outside of my perspective struggle. Learning and growing my perspective makes it possible to stand in solidarity with BIPOC and other marginalized groups.”

Alysa Yabe ’25 with a copy of So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Facing Racisim, Tracing Racism. Alysa Yabe ’25 chose to create a fist of solidarity from the book So You Want to Talk About Race. Writes its author Ijeoma Oluo: “Systemic racism is a machine that runs whether we pull the levers or not, and by just letting it be, we are responsible for what it produces. We have to actually dismantle the machine if we want to make change.”

Maxine Dobbs ’25 with a copy of Noam Chomsky’s Who Rules the World?

Championing Chomsky. Maxine Dobbs ’25 chose to sculpt Noam Chomsky’s critical analysis of America’s role in the international arena, 2016’s Who Rules the World? Chomsky writes, “Historical amnesia is a dangerous phenomenon not only because it undermines moral and intellectual integrity but also because it lays the groundwork for crimes that still lie ahead.”

eight books from the solidarity book project

“A Stark Reminder of the College’s Racist Past.” Catherine Epstein, provost and dean of the faculty, sculpted Khalil Gibran Muhammed’s The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. While reading the book before Muhammed gave a talk at Amherst in 2020, she came across the name Richmond Mayo-Smith (class of 1875), for whom an Amherst dorm is named. He was a Columbia statistics professor whose books included 1890’s Emigration and Immigration. Notes Epstein: “While a pioneer in the field of statistics, by today’s standard his work was profoundly racist and anti-immigrant.” She chose The Condemnation of Blackness as her solidarity book “because it is a stark reminder of the College’s racist past…and all of the work we must continue to do to uncover challenging aspects of the history of Amherst College.” 

Top row (l to r): Invisible Man, sculpted by Aneeka A. Henderson, associate professor of American studies; James Baldwin’s Collected Essays, sculpted by Nicola Courtright, the William McCall Vickery 1957 Professor of the History of Art; The Warmth of Other Suns, sculpted by Allen Hart ’82, the Manwell Family Professor of Life Sciences (Psychology); The Condemnation of Blackness, sculpted by Catherine Epstein, provost and dean of faculty.
Bottom row (l to r): Black Elk Speaks, sculpted by Betsey Garand, senior resident artist in the Department of Art and the History of Art; War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony, sculpted by Stephanie Ramírez, Amherst’s associate director of social and new media; Where Are all the Librarians of Color?, sculpted by Martin Garnar, director of the library; This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, sculpted by Sara Smith, arts and humanities librarian.

A crowd gathers around Sonya Clark in the Frost Library, reading aloud statements that define solidarity

2,768 Comments. Clark gives first-year seminar students handout sheets filled with comments from an Instagram post in which folks were asked what solidarity means to them. Students took turns reading the comments aloud, and after that, Clark had them speak the separate comments in unison, in an overlapping chorus of solidarity. Clark said that here were so many handouts that, bound together, they’d make a book.

A sculpted copy of Women, Race and Class by Angela Davis

Angela Davis Spoke to Her. Emily Potter-Ndiaye, the Dwight and Kirsten Poler & Andrew W. Mellon Head of Education and Curator of Academic Programs, first read Angela Davis’ 1981 book Women, Race and Class when she was 19, in an intro class in women’s and gender studies. “It taught me how women with privilege contribute to other women’s oppression, and how Black women’s political imaginations for liberation have shaped progress in the U.S. for generations,” she says. “Reading it at that moment ignited in me a seeking of other ways of being a white woman in the world—towards solidarity and mutual liberation.”

Students listening to a speaker during the solidarity seminar

A Different Kind of Seminar. First-year seminar students streamed in to Frost to learn about the Solidarity Book Project, participate in its messaging and browse the display. The seminars that took part included “New Women in America” (Professor Wendy Bergoffen); “Encounters with Nature” (Professor Nicola Courtright); “Race, Gender and Ethnicity in Latin American Arts” (Professor Paul Schroeder Rodriguez); and “Utopias” (Professor Karen Koehler). At one point, students in “Thinking Body, Dancing Mind” (Professor Jenna Riegel) found spots around the library, sat and put on headphones, and listened to music they’d chosen that conjured the idea of solidarity.

A copy of the Diary of a Young Girl with a rainbow colored fist carved into the fore edge of the book

“Paper Has More Patience Than People.” So Anne Frank wrote of how her diary offered consolation while she hid with her family and others during the Holocaust. Julianne Mahler, a retired geologist and artist (who already worked with paper and recycled books) heard about the Solidarity Book Project and decided to participate. “I am a scientist in a world that is a bit afraid of science and does not think of women as scientists,” she wrote on the form for submitting a book. “I am Jewish in a world that is mostly not Jewish. And one of my children identifies as LGBTQ, with a partner who is gender-fluid, in a world that is a dangerous place for that community.” She chose The Diary of a Young Girl “because reading that book was the first time I was able to personalize, and internalize, what it felt like to be hated for a circumstance of birth.”

An aerial view of the Solidarity Book project inside Frost Library.

The Work Continues in the World. A number of students and alumni helped manage the Solidarity Book Project. The team included Joanna Booth ’19, Amir Hall ’17, Jonathan Jackson ’19, Mika Obayashi ’19, Andrew Smith ’18, Jacinta Smith ’25 and Christin Washington ’17. At the final ceremony this semester, President Biddy Martin said of the project, “It’s so Amherst to involve books!” Clark is now exploring ways for other institutions to create their own Solidarity Book Projects. “The fist has been used over and over and over again as a symbol to talk about solidarity with subjugated and oppressed people,” she says. “There is a fight there.” And one of the advantages of working with a book is that it’s something familiar, she added: “It’s a common object that has such capacity to hold so much of who we are—and to shape who we might be.”