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Est. April 5, 2002
December 14, 2017 - Issue 722

Racism in the Library

"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."

I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.

Jorge Luis Borges

Such 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...

Borges, 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,” “totalitarianism,” “fascism,” “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 the

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 institutions.

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?

Just go!

I 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.

Other 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, complicit?

I’m sure the librarians, mostly white women, wondered if I would take sides—with them or with these young Black boys.

One 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!

The 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 children!

Did I expect these children to sit down at a little table and read books?

Well, 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.

How 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!

Please don’t. We are doing our best! Take pity on us!

It does little good if this or that librarian does this or that good deed outside the library at this or that community of disadvantaged youths!

Not 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 post-racism era.

Another 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.

So we know where you stand!

I’ve been singled out!

I 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.

On this day, I’m standing closer to her. His attention is elsewhere. I don’t exist.

Do 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?

I 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.

Yes, there’s racism. Yes, I’ve experienced racism here!

For 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 racism…

In 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…

I 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…

My feet are moving away. I catch up to myself on the verge of throwing up.

Another teaching moment, on another day, in another month, another year, in this country, in this hemisphere, on this planet speeding through space.

Power! 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.

The 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.

Never 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!

As 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.

It seems we are annoyingly the center of attention, again. We refuse to be complicit.

Cobb is right to point out that “Black-identity extremists” rhymes with “radical Islamic terrorists.” Catchy but sinister.

I 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!

This is what paradise really looks like anywhere and everywhere for Black America. Editorial Board member and Columnist, Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD, has a Doctorate in Modern American Literature/Cultural Theory. Contact Dr. Daniels.




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