libraries are not neutral spaces, and neither is the human heart

I’ve heard it in more than one training and workshop that part of customer service is when you’re faced with an unhappy or even irate patron, you should consider what has happened in their day, their week, their life, up until that very moment, that might be causing their distress. If there is an outburst, it’s very rarely about the fine or the missing item. It’s about the coffee they spilled in their car on their commute, or how their father always yelled at them when they misplaced things, and how once they had to go to school in the snow wearing only sandals because they’d lost their winter boots.

So it goes with those who work in libraries; we all have our own stories, chains of events and people that have created the person we are today. Our stories make us. Our stories are who we are. We share these narratives when appropriate, and listen to the narratives of others when required. (I’ve said before that all library service is made up of stories.)

I’ve been thinking about people and their stories very much these days. How the narratives black soldiers live can lead them to violence. How the narratives we perpetuate about the monstrosity of black men and boys leads to horrific murders that go unpunished.

I’ve heard these stories. My father had a derogatory name for Junior Mints that I won’t repeat. He also told me I could marry any man I wanted, but not a black man, because my father didn’t want any “[mixed] grandbabies.” (My father is no longer a part of my life, for this and many other reasons).

I’ve also heard other stories. My mother told me about her home ec teacher, Mrs. Hill, a woman who my mother greatly admired and adored. Hearing positive feelings for a black person was a revelation for me.

When my little brother was still very little and didn’t know much about the world, he called black people who stopped by our summer farm stand to buy fruit and vegetables “chocolate pudding people.” We watched Alex Haley’s Queen together, and when he asked me about what was happening, I talked to him as honestly and frankly about racism as  I could. He listened, and then went off to ponder some more; my mother came in and thanked me for talking to him about it.

Yet once when I was riding the bus and a black man struck up a perfectly pleasant conversation with me about chili recipes (I had a bag full of chili fixings with me, fresh from a trip to the grocery store), I was nervous and uneasy and, while not rude, not very polite, either; and to this day I can still see his expression–a mixture of resignation and anger, perhaps?

This is why we need diverse books. This is why there can never be enough. Black boys and girls need to hear stories about themselves as brave, resourceful, funny, beautiful, charming, sad, and more; and white children need to hear the same (about children who are not white). I wish I could find it written down somewhere, but at the Illinois Library Association conference, Shankar Vedantam said that it’s been shown that it is not enough to just have a black character doing something good in a story; for most audiences, that has to be explicitly pointed out for the story to have its greatest impact, on all children.

I sometimes cry on my way to work if I see a black or brown face in the cars next to me on the road, I hope that they don’t get stopped that day, or any day. I see children in the library and I want to tell them that I see them, that I have stories for them, that their stories are worth listening to.

I’m listening, no matter how much it breaks my heart.

It’s the least I can do.

image CC (Rosa Trieu/Neon Tommy)

 

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