I have always imagined that Paradise
will be a kind of library.
Jorge Luis Borges
an idyllic image the late poet Borges imagines. A space where
attentiveness to democratic principles departures from the
commonplace practice of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and classism...
when he lived, didn’t live here. His paradise sounds like a
democracy. If it’s not here, on Earth, why would it be in some
mythical sphere called Paradise? And anything but a democracy is
welcome—even at a public neighborhood library.
I rely on libraries. In the past few
years, I rely on public libraries as opposed to university libraries,
because I no longer have access to college and university
libraries—except when I request an outer library loan (OLL) for
books or article not within the public library system. Usually, the
book is lifted from a college or university library shelf and the
article is copied from a scholarly journal.
Fairly straightforward. Although
I’ll admit, it’s not something a computer can do. It
requires a librarian to initiate the procedure and possibly a
librarian at the campus library to assign to a clerk the actual task
of locating the material. It’s a “free” service and
not so free a service: a few librarians, clerks and volunteers, I’m
sure, are needed to complete these kind of requests.
And yes, the books and the articles,
unsettling, for sure, especially when words such as “capitalism,”
“racism,”--worse, “white supremacy” appear in
the titles. I used to joke among Black fellow writers and activists
involved an imagined hell (for us) in which a librarian doesn’t
wait for the FBI to come calling. But historically fascism and
totalitarian states come for the activists, writers, academics—those
in the arts and sciences—first. Some could be co-opted while
Jews and the Herero, examples of
racial cleansing, are systematically exterminated. The Nazis and the
KGB couldn’t have accomplished so much killing without the help
of those who sit behind desks at city, state, and federal
But I’m a patron. Only so much
is permissible online. Most literary journals lock certain articles.
And I wish I could walk into an independent bookstore, with used and
new books, and purchase to my heart’s content. But that’s
an imagined paradise.
Among many other taxpayers, I’m
a taxpayer too. My percentage of the funding of these public
libraries is minuscule; nonetheless, it’s tossed in the cash
bag to provide income tax assistance, resume writing tutoring,
knitting and yoga classes, children’s scavenger hunts, computer
tech support, and book clubs, particularly the increasingly
popular—mystery book club. It’s a community library,
yes. Something for everyone, yes?
could see parts of the libraries back wall as I came through the door
of this neighborhood branch library in Madison, Wisconsin. A few
steps in, I could recognized those familiar study and computer rooms
also along that back wall. The reference desk is a few few away from
me and the pick up/drop off counter is to my right. In front of me
and to my left, little children are seated at little round tables
with books and colorful toys. A hovering librarian who, I later
discovered, specializes in all things children, reminds me of a
doting parent. I would see this scene repeat itself, time and time
again. It’s what happens when children away from home are
welcome to a cultural/educational institution and receive
constructive attention from adults within the community.
scenes drew my attention too. These children, a group of three or
four boys, always came through running. These little children ran
from the front of the library to the back, through the study/computer
rooms. The first few times, I watched as no patron looked in their
direction. No librarian, either, seemed to notice. I couldn’t
smile at this scene. These children, boys and Black, were just
allowed to be—in their own world. Do you remain silent,
sure the librarians, mostly white women, wondered if I would take
sides—with them or with these young Black boys.
day I stopped and looked from the boys to the librarians and clerks,
the predominately white patrons. The boys didn’t pose a threat
to the safety of anyone in the library; yet, the faces of the
librarians, clerks, and patrons suggested that the children, if
spoken to, if engaged in some project, would suddenly attack everyone
in the library—simultaneously. They appeared big, black, and
monstrous, instead of children who needed adults to be adults! So
maybe we should just pretend they don’t exist!
Public policy toward Black children in a public library!
behavior of the adults, employees of municipal or state institutions,
was something I’d witnessed when I first came to Madison. At a
Martin Luther King event for public school children some years
before, I watched as teachers and parents surrounded white children
as if to shield them from the Black children allowed to run freely
about the auditorium before commencement of activities. So here at
this library, the Black children were being—you know—Black
I expect these
children to sit down at a little table and read books?
in fact, I did! Silly, again! Given that the boys were still children
and the place they entered and ran about was still a library, I did
expect to see the librarians engaging the interests of these
children. I have to say something.
many times I’m I forced to see myself as a singular voice (no
one else has said complained!),
therefore, powerless voice, against good people trying to do good
deeds with the disadvantaged population!
Excuses justify the abandonment of these Black children to
their own whims!
don’t. We are doing our best! Take pity on us!
does little good if this or that librarian does this or that good
deed outside the
library at this or that community of
long after this incident, I enter the library and walk up to the drop
off/pick up counter just as two or three teenage Black boys where
turning from the counter with their books. The children walked past,
toward the door behind me. In fact the only reason I followed this
rather mundane activity was because, the clerk, a white woman in her
thirties, stopped to follow with her eyes these the boys as they
walked away from her counter. The expression on her face was that of
contempt. For children!
And worse—did she care if I had noticed her? This happened not
yesterday or this past year, in the “Trump Era” brand of
in-your-face racism. No this happened four years ago. In the
day, I’m at the counter, and I see her hand not exactly handing
me the change. No. I’m watching a dime spin in front of me,
nearly falling between the counter and my chest. I’m watching
her walk away to tend
to some other business.
we know where you
I’ve been singled out!
no longer recall. He was the only Black librarian I ever saw and
occasionally he was assigned this particular branch. He had a
presence reference desk, even when he wasn’t sitting next to
the branch’s supervisor. He was a middle-aged Black man who
hadn’t been friendly to me. The supervisor, on the contrary,
nearing retirement, made up her mind to be friendly to me, so my
complaints wouldn’t go over her head to the regional director.
Otherwise, a few times she pointed out, so I wouldn’t miss it,
that my OLL request, which she had to initiate, were “academic,”
huh? That’s academic, isn’t it? Well,
what am I to say.
this day, I’m standing closer to her. His attention is
elsewhere. I don’t exist.
you think there’s racism here in Madison?, I heard her ask me.
Before I could answer, she added, You
don’t experience racism here, do you?
couldn’t believe I was asked these questions. Is there racism
in Madison? Do I experience it? I look over at her colleague. He’s
heard. But waits.
there’s racism. Yes, I’ve experienced racism here!
a moment, she looks as if I suddenly towered over her, darkening the
atmosphere in a library she has worked so hard to represent as
paradise to those good patrons. Abruptly, she turns from me to him.
You don’t think there’s
my mind’s eye are those Black boys left to their own demise.
Running, running, running. I see that look of contempt and the backs
of those Black teenage boys. I could scream…
see he’s looking at me. Comfortable, he is. I see him. He’s
played the game and, by the looks of him, he’s done well. He’s
made it! He’s slowly shaking his head—in disagree.
No. No. I…
feet are moving away. I catch up to myself on the verge of throwing
teaching moment, on another day, in another month, another year, in
this country, in this hemisphere, on this planet speeding through
She knows there’s racism. He knows it too, of course. I’m
visibly permitted within the institution, that’s “progress,”
but I’m not allowed to speak on the abuse of power at this
cultural institution when it comes to acknowledging the rights of
Black Americans. Displays of books approved of by a community of
white librarians and educators for Black History Month doesn’t
chip away at those invisible walls barring the exclusion of Black
people. It’s not in the books; it’s in the mindset of
those who yield power.
white woman in charge turned to the Black man, and he let it be known
to power that he didn’t give his approval of my behavior,
particularly in the company of white people. It’s no wonder #Me
Too—started by a Black woman, mind you—is doing such
brisk business online since the revelations of sexual assaults and
abuse of power have surfaced in the last few weeks.
once am I asked to lead a literary or Modernist or a Black woman’s
book club. Anything. No. Never once am I asked to give a lecture on
Baldwin or Morrison or Faulkner. The Modernist writers. Anything. No.
But I’m called at home, called away from my work, to stand at a
podium—to take down the names of those good patrons arriving at
the library for income tax assistance. Oh, and—would you
please, feed the birds out back?
Your silence is welcome!
I read Jelani Cobb’s commentary in The New Yorker
about the obsession “over
all manner of ‘radicals,’” particularly those
Blacks who voiced opposition to racism in the “meekest”
form of protest, a century ago, I thought about a subsequent report,
the prodigy of the FBI’s “Final Report on Negro
Subversion.” The Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO)
designed to destroy the Black Panthers and any revolutionary urge in
the Black community—and it now has an offspring. A FBI report
entitled, “Black Identity Extremists Likely Motivated to Target
Law Enforcement Officers,” just in time to counter any
resistance and protest of yet another generation of Black Americans.
seems we are annoyingly the center of attention, again. We refuse to
is right to point out that “Black-identity extremists”
rhymes with “radical Islamic terrorists.” Catchy but
hear in this phrase, “Black-identity extremists,” a
pulsating siren, warning any Black rejecting invisibility in
whiteness, any member of the Black Lives Matter Movement, any Black
grassroots organizer to be on the alert: we are watching.
We see where you stand!
is what paradise
really looks like anywhere and everywhere for Black America.