Content warning: This article discusses discrimination against Black women.
Christine Barthelemy (LA’19) and two of her closest friends, Gigi Abellard and Salena Deane, formed their community group, Sapphire, last May with a vision of inspiriting and celebrating the art and stories of women of color.
Deane loves art and Abellard wanted to start a book club, so with Barthelemy, they decided to combine the two ideas into what is now Sapphire.
“We came up with making a community organization that would be nonprofit and that would emphasize community and learning, and just women of color,” Barthelemy said.
Their mission statement captures the vision for their organization: “To cultivate a safe space for womxn to socialize, read, teach, and learn from and about each other. We encourage the creation and discussion of art and literature through an intersectional lens, with an emphasis on Blackness and gender.”
According to the organization’s website, members of Sapphire “aim to reclaim discriminatory labels such as ‘domineering female’ and ‘angry Black woman’, turning the stereotypes on their heads to embody what [it] means to be 3 young, hard-working, Black women.”
Sapphire is also a multifaceted organization. It offers a book club, publishes two separate biannual publications — a literary magazine called Sapphire Hues and an art book series — and holds other community events, all of which are currently virtual.
Since its conception, the organization has slowly been growing and gaining support.
“It’s been really lovely just seeing our friends and family and also other members of the community being really receptive of it,” Barthelemy said.
The first thing Sapphire did was start its book club, Books & Booze. The club’s first book was “In the Time of the Butterflies” (1994) by Julia Alvarez. “In the Time of the Butterflies” is a historical fiction novel that retells the story of the Mirabal sisters who fought against Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic.
Barthelemy talked about this choice, saying, “We wanted to start off with a really strong book that kind of emphasized the whole theme of sapphires, [of] strong women. So who better to start the book club off with than [four] women who basically saved an entire country.”
Some of the other books that Books & Booze has read include “The Vanishing Half” (2020), “Hood Feminism” (2020), “Bad Feminist” (2014) and “The Right Swipe” (2019). The club reads a variety of genres, some more theoretical than others, all of which share a different perspective of the experiences of Black women.
Barthelemy’s favorite part of the book club, other than the reading, is when new people come, bring all of their unique life experiences and enjoy discussing the books.
“[It’s] been really amazing just being able to meet people and now we’re growing connections, gaining friends and that’s exactly what we wanted to do — just build a community. It’s been so nice and really fulfilling,” Barthelemy said.
Other than Books & Booze, Sapphire Hues just published its first art book entitled “Our Palette” in January. The book includes the visual art of artists from all over the world, celebrating and highlighting “the hues of being a woman of color,” as Barthelemy put it. For the book, they put out an open submission call for artwork of any medium and ended up getting both domestic and international submissions, from countries like Cuba, Nigeria, India and Turkey, to name a few. They had contributions from artists across the United States as well.
“It just became this extremely varied selection of pieces that were just so beautiful,” Barthelemy said.
Inspired by the different colors and meanings of sapphire gems, Sapphire wanted to make a book about all the varied, vibrant colors of the gem and the experiences those colors can represent.
“We figured [that] we just wanted to make an art book that … started from black and white and got all the colors in between,” Barthelemy said.
There is a print version and a free digital version of the book. The group has not published Sapphire Hues yet, but submissions to the magazine will begin May 1 with a hope to publish annual fall issues.
Sapphire also hosts special events, such as “This Round’s On Us,” a virtual gathering including games, conversation and much-needed social interaction. The organization also has hosted book giveaways and posted writing prompts on its social media to give members another avenue for thoughtful reflection and self-care.
Sapphire is welcoming to all people. “We want anyone and everyone to join regardless of gender or race,” Barthelemy said. “It shouldn’t just be women of color learning about everything. Everyone should learn about women of color. Everyone should learn about these histories and these theories.”
Among the group’s main priorities for 2021 are publishing the first issue of Sapphire Hues, building membership, growing its book club and mentoring new members to whom they can pass on all they have learned. Sapphire will also continue to have events like “This Round’s On Us” and are even looking to host a poetry extravaganza in April.
“Our biggest emphasis is that … we want women of color’s voices to be uplifted and to be recognized, but [we are] very inclusive and we want everyone to learn,” Barthelemy said.