The realization that the public library—idealized as a democratic place of learning and sanctuary, where the life of the mind was more ostensibly important than the color of skin—was not a haven for all was not new. As scholar Karla Holloway has written inBookMarks: Reading in Black and White, Black Americans knew that they had a “vulnerable relationship” to public libraries and found ways to “contradict the value that those segregated spaces explicitly assigned.” In 1925, NAACP Secretary Walter White mounted opposition to the establishment of a library science school at the all-Black Hampton Institute, reasoning that the creation of a segregated training program would only bolster an already segregated profession or create boundaries where they were being deliberately and incrementally torn down. A decade later, the American Library Association would be on the hot seat when it held its 1936 conference in the old Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia; Black participants were allowed, but were seated in their own section in meeting halls and were not invited to any events where meals were served.
I don’t give myself a lot of credit for my parenting. To be honest, once Kick could recognize Bucky Badger and the Packers logo on sight, I figured it was up to PBS to handle the rest of it.
(Guys, Dinosaur Train. Are children’s TV producers high all the time or just insane?)
Kick will cadge food from strangers (Shit, is it lunchtime? When did that happen?) and go down the waterslide headfirst (Wheeee!) and not brush her teeth for three days straight (forgot to pack her toothbrush), but the one thing I will take credit for: I read to her every day starting when she was six days old.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
She was basically a potato at that point. But she looked at the butterfly picture in the book, the first time she really looked at anything. Her eyes grew wider. I couldn’t feed her right and she didn’t sleep and to be honest she seemed kind of pissed to be alive and around me, but when I saw her see the butterfly, I felt like I’d finally found something I could do for her that worked.
I read her a new book every day until we went through all the books in her tiny bookshelf, and then we started again. We watch cartoons in the morning and on rainy days we watch movies and sometimes she has graham crackers for dinner if it’s been a rough one, but every day before bed is book time.
What if we couldn’t?
The library saved our asses in the wintertime, with its weekly baby storytimes where I met other moms and dads, where I learned about what to do with this baby all day long. Our United Nations ‘hood would be horrified one and all by the idea of roughly two thirds of us having to enter by the back door, like this was the Dark Ages, something out of a history book.
But it was not until December 1945 when a two-man team, including New Jersey civil rights attorney Ira Katchen, went to the library. They quizzed a Black young girl whom they spotted walking down the street and carrying a load of books. She guided them to the library’s back entrance and a room that measured, by the activists’ best guess, 10 feet square.
As it turned out, the Navesink library limited black patrons, mostly children, to only six hours of library access on Wednesdays. And it was a policy about which staff disagreed; one library assistant commented that the “present set-up is terrible and unfair but she asked not to be quoted.” Not so Harriet Trumaine, the library’s treasurer, who treated the men to a pointed explanation of why Black children were literally relegated to the back of the building.
Wednesdays’ short hours were enough for the children, Trumaine said, because “we don’t believe in social equality for Negroes. We don’t want our white children associating with them on the same level. The Negroes are a different race. They should be proud of it but keep to themselves.”
Now read that and ask yourself what the library looks like in the nearest majority-minority neighborhood you know of. Ask yourself if it looks like the one in the richest town next door. And ask yourself if this really was all that long ago.
I read to Kick because my parents read to me, everything from The Hobbit to financial newspapers to romance novels. My father spent money on books when we didn’t have any money at all. My mother had a stack next to the bed, the chair, the front porch swing. My grandfather read poetry, my grandmother read stories. We went to the bookmobile like other people went to church, and books could always connect us, even when nothing else could.
What if that wasn’t just not done but prohibited?
These things last. We wall people up and then let them out and expect them to act like the walls were never there. If your parents didn’t read to you, if your grandparents couldn’t afford books, if your great-grandparents were prohibited by LAW from learning to read, or were beaten on the way to school, or were forced to sneak in the back on alternate Wednesdays during a full moon? How would you feel about books then?
Would you read to your baby? Would you do it every day?
Maybe you would.
But it shouldn’t be this hard.