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 “law and order” (so called) people 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.

What Color is Your Book?

I recently wrote about libraries and segregation. Today I revisit it in light of my friend Fate Hagood’s post, “white is right.” One person has defined “white privilege” as “access to goods and services.” It is not defined as “outcome.” This may or may not be completely adequate but it points to a baseline: Access. Many in the history of the USA have been granted “access” and denied “access” solely on the basis of the color of their skin or the social evaluation of the color of their skin (a person could look white but was socially black because of as little of one drop of blood).

You know a country is paranoid when an entire segment of its population is denied access to a library that their own taxes help to fund. Books, literacy, and learning have been linked to economic and political power in the United States. This explains a great deal. What follows is a series of vignettes on books and access to libraries based upon race in the USA.

Mary Hannah Johnson, of Nashville, speaking to the American Library Conference, “The South needs a great many more public libraries and if they are to be established they must be libraries for white people.”

W. E. B. DuBois led a petition drive in 1904 in the city of Atlanta for blacks to have access to the public library their taxes helped pay for. The petition was denied. DuBois said the library was “a monument to unchristian and unmanly prejudice.”

George Wilson, a black World War I army veteran, walked into the Alexandria, Va library in 1939 and asked for a library card. He was refused because blacks are forbidden access to the library.

Edward Gaddis, Morris Murray, Clarence Strange, Otto Tucker and William Evans, black students, walk into the Augusta, Ga library. They each get a book and sit at a table in the reading room not making a noise. They are informed they must leave but refuse. The cops show up and arrest them for the crime of reading in the library.

April 1960, Danville, Va. Black citizens attempt to use the library but are denied access. In the spirit of the times, they sued and won. However the white citizens voted to close the public library rather than comply with court mandated desegregation.

The State of Mississippi not only outlawed African Americans from the library, it passed a law “banning books that portray the equality of Negroes and whites.”

None of this is secret information. Some of us simply live in complete denial and have self induced amnesia. Since this history overlaps with my lifetime, I know it covers MILLIONS who are older than me. Millions of whites today used those “whites only” libraries but for some reason do not seem to remember our legacy of injustice.

I conclude this section with the sobering observation by Cheryl Knott in her book, Not Free, Not for All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow, “public libraries reveal a hidden law of Southern library science: every book reader is white.”

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.

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).

6 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.

  3. Mark Tucker Says:

    I am so thankful you found these books! Cheryl and Wayne have been my friends and colleagues since the 1980s. Cheryl contributed to Untold Stories: Civil Rights, Libraries, and Black Librarianship (1998) collected essays by 8 black 8 white contributors which I edited under my full name, John Mark Tucker. Wayne used this book for required reading when he taught at Florida State. It is available full text through the ERIC database and the IDEALS open access source at the University of Illinois. The paper volume is out of print, it is available in libraries and, rarely, through online aggregators like Bookfinder.

    It includes a memoir by Ed Holley, a life-long Stone Campbell guy, Lipscomb graduate, DCHS trustee, dean at NC Chapel Hill on racial integration at Univ of Houston.

    You might also enjoy David M. Battles, The History of Public Library Access for African Americans in the South (2009), Mike Selby, Freedom Libraries: The Untold Story of Libraries for African Americans in the South (2019) and Patterson Toby Graham, A Right to Read: Segregation and Civil Rights In Alabama’s Public Libraries, 1900-1965 (2002).

  4. Laurie Says:

    Civil Rights should be for all. The race, disability or even class shouldn’t matter for tax payer funded things. I did my Masters In blindness orientation and mobility. The National Gederatikn of the Blond started their first meeting to obtain civil rights in 1940. The Blind literally had no more status than the black person. Some of the blind were starving. The federation was able to get monies to help them. It’s still a big fight to get the schools to teach Braille (think access again). Any how as a nation we often deny access to others based on silly reasons.

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