5 Oct 2020

With a Book in a Nook and Systemic Racism

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: American Empire, Black History, Contemporary Ethics, Culture, Discipleship, Race Relations, Reading
Richard Wright (1908-1960). Wright wrote Native Son, Black Boy, Ethics of Living Jim Crow and many others

Richard Wright Goes to the Library

I begin this post with a quote from Richard Wright’s memoir, Black Boy,

The white librarian looked at me. ‘What do you want, boy?’ As though I did not possess the power of speech, I stepped forward and simply handed her the forged note, not parting my lips. ‘What books by Mencken does she want?’ she asked. ‘I don’t know, ma’am,’ I said, avoiding her eyes. ‘You’re not using these books, are you?’ she asked pointedly. ‘Oh no, ma’am, I can’t read.’”

Richard Wright gives us a window onto how one young African American was able to obtain books that he was otherwise forbidden, he had to practice subtle deception against the principalities and powers. Some today would condemn Wright for breaking the law and “lying” in his attempts to be able to read (I’m not so sure the authors of Joshua and Amos would). Wright went on to become a powerful novelist, in part because he was able to beat the system through misdirection. I knew this story, and others, but it did not become part of my “consciousness” until recently.

I am convinced that part of the journey to mental, and spiritual, maturity is the realization that the world is far more than my personal experience. Most of us grow up with a set of filters that have been firmly placed in front of our eyes. These filters skew the reality that is plainly staring us in the face. Most of us never know we are wearing these glasses until they get a scratch or smudge on them, then we are conscious we are looking through something.

A Memory

I grew up in a house with books. We did not have a TV when I was young, but we had books. Dad had his religious books and mechanic books. Mom had romance novels. We had encyclopedias, big National Geographic books and the like. We would climb into the old station wagon and mom would take us downtown to the public library in Florence. What a place it was! Books galore everywhere, floors of books. They had summer reading programs and we would get signed up for those. And I remember the day I got my very own library card. I thought I had arrived! How different was my experience at the library and Richard Wright’s.

The depths of what I do not know was again on display. The pettiness and pervasiveness of white supremacy knew no limits.

Not For All, White Only Libraries

I cannot imagine my life without books. I have spent thousands of dollars on books and I still love the library. Can you imagine seeing that gleaming white edifice – a temple of books – frequently with slogans etched into the concrete that said, “Free to all,” “Libraries are the heart of democracy,” or some such … Only to encounter when you walk in you are forcefully told “you do not belong here.” “N*****s are not allowed in here.” This is for “Whites only!”

Sometimes I fool myself into believing that I am fairly well read on what is called “Black History.” But my ignorant naivete is routinely shattered. I continue to be amazed at how deep racial paranoia gripped America for centuries. I still know nothing! The “land of the free and home of the brave” was the land of white only bathrooms, white only water fountains, white only rail cars, white only restaurants, white only churches, etc

But I never imagined we were also the land of white only books and libraries. It is only recently that I became “consciously” aware that there was a deeply embedded reality of whites only books and book spaces – white only libraries.

In 1900, Guthrie, Oklahoma, received a Carnegie Foundation grant for a library. When it opened, D. G. Horton the principle of the local black high school went to the library. He was denied access by the clerk at the front desk.

In Texas, a black World War II veteran took his daughter to the library and was denied entrance. In Durham, NC, the library opened up and black physician Aaron McDuffie Moore was told he could not use it. Black men, black women … black children … could not use it. Moore took matters into his own hands and opened a small library for people of color in the basement of White Rock Baptist Church.

W. E. B. DuBois, at the time, faculty member of Atlanta University led a group of African Americans to present a petition for “Negroes to Use the Carnegie Library” in Atlanta.

The Lake City (South Carolina) Public Library called the police on Ronald McNair when he attempted to check out books. (McNair would end up getting a PhD in physics from MIT becoming the second African American to fly in space. He died on the Challenger in 1986). How differently the lady at the counter treated me than Roland McNair.

From the 1880s to the 1940s, there was a library building phenomena. Across the South (and occasionally outside the South) these temples of books were denied to people of color. By 1930, for example, there were 6000 libraries in the United States. Four hundred ninety one were in the South and only 64 that were available on a limited basis to African Americans. These were separate and but hardly “equal.”

The library was an extension of white supremacy and privilege. The fact is these public libraries were maintained by public taxes. African Americans paid millions of dollars in taxes. Yet though their taxes were used to maintain these temples of books, they were denied access. Part of the reason for whites only library was the historic effort to deny blacks information and education. Book learning ruined people of color for the jobs they were supposedly created to do (be servants to white folks). Denial of information and education is a means of control. Part of the reason for whites only libraries was the library became a socially accepted space for white women to work (and thus also a safe place for white children). White women had to be “protected,” supposedly, from the lustful eyes of black men.

But people of color were just as intelligent as people of whiteness. They understood the power of books and information. They established libraries in churches, small offices in places like Greenwood (Tulsa, Ok). They even built temples of books called “Faith Cabin” libraries that literally were log cabins. Enterprising African Americans converted trucks and vans into small mobile libraries to bring books to thousands who were denied the right to read a book. Occasionally they even secured a grant from the Carnegie foundation for a “black only” library.

I never dreamed that wanting to read a book could cause so much trouble in the USA.

My Filters

But on the whole the library in the United States, especially in the South, was not free and it was not for all. I find it nearly incomprehensible that black men, black women, black students were literally arrested for trying to check out a book from the white only library. But this was their America. We need to remember, firmly, the problem was not of class but of race.

During the Civil Rights Movement libraries were just one of the many essential cogs of Jim Crow that were dismantled by brave high school and college students from Houston to Birmingham to Charlotte to Jackson. Some things help us see anew. When a person is denied access to a building with books for no other reason than the color of her or his skin, we begin to realize just how different the world really was … and my filtered experience of it.

In 2018, the Birmingham Public Library system publicly acknowledged and apologized for its historic role in maintaining white supremacy. We are still living with the legacy of this evil. A wise man once said, “we misunderstand ‘white privilege.’ We think it is about OUTCOME when it is really about ACCESS. Access to goods and services, not outcome.” When I heard this it was like bells going off in my head. Outcome is often shaped by access no doubt but they are not the same. When I heard this, at least for me, it was like scales falling from my eyes. In America, the color of your skin certainly was the key to access to many things in life.

The purpose of growth, of expanding our horizon, is to help us understand our own filtered experience in light of something bigger than ourselves. My understanding of the world is not exactly how the world really is. When something as simple and ordinary as a book is denied people of color – and we finally understand that – we see that my world and their world has been radically different.

Recently I read two books that have made their way into this post. Cheryl Knott, Not Free, Not for All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow (2015) and Wayne & Shirley Weigand, The Desegregation of Public Libraries in Jim Crow South (2018).

4 Responses to “With a Book in a Nook and Systemic Racism”

  1. Terry Bouchelle Says:

    We deny them a good school, A library, and then blame them for not having a good job.

  2. Jerry Starling Says:

    Realizing the evils of the past is one thing. Knowing what to do about them in the present is quite another. What is the solution to the “What do we do now?” question is a mystery to me.

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