In praise of librarians

The Burke County, NC, librarian pulled directories from the shelves, ran her finger down columns of indices. “Now why would…?” she’d now and then ask. Had it not been for her efforts I might not have written Leander’s Lies, my novel-in-progress.

I don’t remember the librarian of the College Park Branch (Orlando), but she at least kept it running, for every week or so I walked home carrying a stack of books. When my kids were little, a librarian gave mothers an hour of reprieve by organizing weekly story times. In my work as an educator, I saw how librarians went out of their way to help students locate materials that interested them or enabled them to complete a research project.

Public librarians, in addition to keeping the shelves current, schedule events that entertain and educate the citizenry. They offer space for a variety of groups to meet: political, environmental, literary. They allow local artists and writers to present their work.

So how can it be that zealots are threatening this group of helping professionals? Librarians are the preservers of democracy, not its enemy. They order and distribute materials that make an educated public possible. They contribute to our informed discourse. Because of librarians we and our children can read varying positions on a host of issues and make informed decisions.

Fanatics are making threats over a stack of books they find offensive without considering what a valuable resource librarians are to our communities. I guess I’m a snob for concluding that these extremists have probably seldom if ever entered the doors of a library. 

A related observation: Do these parents as carefully monitor what their children watch on their computers and television screens? 

When commitment becomes extreme

Mary Surratt would not go away. My writing group and readers of earlier drafts kept advising me to delete her. All agreed that a co-conspirator in the assassination of Lincoln had no place in a novel about women trying to save the planet from environmental disaster. She insisted on staying.

The novel, While Earth Still Speaks, originated with my wondering if there was a cause so important to my grandchildren’s future that I’d be willing to give my life. I had, after all, lived more than three score years. All that I read about deforestation and humans taking over animal habitats and global warming led me to choose the environment. My protagonist would be willing to risk her life to save Earth. 

During the past year the degree of Americans’ commitment to a cause has become less hypothetical. A February survey by the American Enterprise Institute “found that nearly three in 10 Americans, including 39% of Republicans, agreed that ‘if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent actions’” More recent news offers no hope that this level of commitment has diminished.

The Mary Surratt who invaded my imagination supported the Confederacy and slavery. Her Washington rooming house was a place where she, her son John, and John Wilkes Booth could strategize. They believed they had a moral obligation to kill the president.

She made her way into my book as a reminder that not all causes merit such commitment. 

When commitment becomes extreme

Meanwhile, Across the Atlantic

On the morning of September 12, 2001, my husband, Jim, and I walked along the narrow brick street of a small Italian hilltown. At an outdoor newspaper stand a front-page photograph caught our attention: billows of smoke over New York. Likely an image related to a new movie. Yet we stopped. Relying on the little high school Latin we remembered, we figured something horrible had happened in New York. Terrorists. Jets. Skyscrapers. 

When we stopped for lunch at a café-tavern, a few men were watching a sports event on TV. For our benefit the proprietor changed the channel to CNN. In halting English patrons expressed concern for our country. A waiter took us to his apartment so we could use his computer to email our family. Over the next few days we had little choice but to continue our itinerary, driving from one hilltown to another. Everywhere local people had created memorials, bouquet piled on bouquet, placards expressing prayers for America. 

Back in Rome those of us whose flights home had been cancelled waited. Jim and I travel cheap and our little hotel had no TV, so we watched CNN in lobbies of expensive hotels where Americans tend to stay. No one chased us away.

During those days of waiting we had many opportunities to engage in conversation. At the Forum a Japanese journalist who had spent much of his career in the Middle East warned that a military response by the U.S would be a big mistake. At a restaurant recommended by travel guru Rick Steves, American tourists, who tend to eat dinner earlier than Italians do, sat at adjoining tables and shared worries about our families back home.

Jim and I returned to the U.S. feeling as if we’d slept through an earthquake, waking to discover that life here had changed drastically. In a way I regret being absent during a defining moment in our country’s history. Yet I was blessed to experience how the world stood with us. 

Sesame Street got it wrong

The results of the 2020 census are in. We know approximately how many Americans identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian, White, Other. Interesting, but relevant?

I sometimes wonder if we’re wired to differentiate. Over here are plants. Some can heal your wound, some are tasty, and some are pretty to gather. Over here are animals. Some make good pets, some will fight you to protect their young or their turf. This cloud’s going to get me soaking wet. I’ll just lie down and try to find an animal in that one. 

Twice my husband, Jim, and I spent a semester in Seoul, ROK. On the subway we’d often notice a small child staring at us. Even toddlers knew we didn’t resemble people they knew. I admit that sometimes I look at someone on TV and wonder, is that person male or female? Is the person of Middle Eastern or Hispanic descent? Black or something else? I seem to be wired to categorize people. Or are such classifications the result of my living in a society where certain differences are exaggerated? Who decides which ones separate those who belong from those who don’t? 

Any parent who’s watched their child circle objects on school worksheets has seen this reading-readiness exercise: Circle the object that doesn’t belong. A Sesame Street song accompanies a picture of four balloons, three red ones and a blue one. “One of these things is not like the others/ One of these things doesn’t belong.” 

Hey, all four of the objects are balloons! Just because one is blue doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong. It expands as you fill it with air. It will pop of you stick it with a pin.

That’s the real problem, isn’t it? Deciding on the basis of difference that something/someone doesn’t belong. Let’s agree: the category is human.

We all belong.

Dear Senator Cruz

(My friend, Cannan Hyde, wrote a letter to Senator Cruz about being “a good dad.” Do the pandemic and natural disasters offer unique opportunities for parenting? I thought the letter is worth sending to a wider audience.)

Dear Senator Cruz,

Here are some ideas for how to “be a good dad” in the middle of a pandemic and the worst winter weather crisis your state has ever had.

Start by asking your daughters what ideas THEY have about how to help others in their city who do not have heat, water or food. This will help them to learn to think critically about how to respond to those less fortunate than they during a natural disaster. It will also help them learn that even at their young ages they can be agents of change. After helping them implement their ideas, you could suggest the following:

  1. The girls are old enough to coordinate a “keep our community warm” drive. They could contact their classmates at their private school and friends at their church to go through their own homes collecting jackets, gloves and blankets to take to their church or a community shelter to help keep people warm.
  2. Help them box up up any food in your house that does not have to be cooked. Drive them to a shelter or food bank where they can deliver it.
  3. Track down places where you can get wood to be burned in fireplaces to keep people warm. Let the girls know that people are cutting up their furniture to burn in their fireplaces just to keep from freezing in their homes. They can help you load the wood in your SUV and deliver it to homes that have fireplaces but no wood. 
  4. Locate a store in your area that has 5 gallon buckets with lids. Take the girls to purchase 10 each, fill with water, then help them deliver it to folks who have none. Take snow shovels with you so you can all shovel snow for people to use to flush their toilets.
  5. Let the girls listen in on your phone calls to friends in neighboring states that DO have power to see if they can send over firewood, water and food to distribute to those in need. With the money you save from not going to the Ritz Carlton you could tell your friends you would pay for an AWD rental truck and driver to bring the much needed supplies.The girls could then help you deliver them. 
  6. Explain to your daughters that the reason your friends in neighboring states have power and you don’t is because they have reciprocal agreements with other states to share power in case of a local utility crisis. They might not realize that Texas has its own “reliable” power source which isn’t exactly reliable.
  7. Be sure your daughters understand that you represent the entire state of Texas and that you have a responsibility to all your constituents, especially in a time of crisis. Ask them what ideas they have about what you could do to help people who are suffering all over the state. They may have ideas other than flying to Cancun. Respectfully,

Repeating our History

Election Day, 1920, Orange County, FL, the county where I grew up. Black groups had been conducting voter registration drives. When Mose Norman, a Black man, tried to vote, a white mob went after him. In the next two days homes of nearly all of Ocoee’s Black families were destroyed by fire. Some estimates are that the white mob killed as many as 60 Blacks, maybe more.

My writing research into racial politics of North and South Carolina in the late 19th century has led me to two events, both related to Black men trying to vote. No doubt there were many, many more. 

Nov. 8, 1898, Phoenix, South Carolina. A white man was collecting affidavits from Black men who had not been allowed to vote. When local *Democrats ordered him to stop, he resisted and a fight broke out. The Democrats opened fire on the crowd of Black men who had gathered. Over the next few days 600-1000 white men descended on the town, burning homes, lynching four Black men, and killing an unknown number of others. No one was charged with the murders.

Nov. 10, 1898, Wilmington, NC. After the election, a mob of 2000 white supremacists, angry that a Black-white coalition had won the election, destroyed the property of Black citizens, killed perhaps as many as 300 people, and overthrew the election. For some time it was called a race riot and blamed on Black citizens of Wilmington, but now considered to have been a coup d’etat.

Wednesday’s attempted coup followed an election in which Black voters played a major role. It was not just about Trump. Insurrectionists were saying this is a white country and Black citizens’ votes shouldn’t count.

* Following Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s most southern white Democrats became Republicans.

RBG, Donald Trump. and me

You’ll be excused for thinking that Donald Trump, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and I had little in common. But last week’s news of RBG’s death and Trump’s announcement that he’ll form a 1776 Commission tasked with promoting patriotic education left me thinking about how all three of us grew up studying the same version of American history. 

I’ve long been interested in history. During third-grade trips to the library, I gravitated toward books with bright orange covers: biographies of famous Americans. Maybe because so few women were in the series, I specifically recall reading about Julia Ward Howe and Dolly Madison. Black Americans? There was George Washington Carver. 

In eighth grade I learned that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery but over whether states could leave the Union. 

In college I took enough history classes (including student teaching) to become certified to teach high school history in the state of Virginia. My history teachers were all men, and the material we studied was mainly about war and conquest. Good American men (all of them white) led other men into battle and through their courage and superior abilities overcame the enemy. Then men (all of them white) helped the country recover from whichever war they’d fought so that they’d be ready to fight the next one. 

My current writing project has taken me to North Carolina newspapers from the 1890s. Editors supported an amendment to the state constitution imposing a poll tax and a literacy test for voters. No one was subtle about the amendment’s purpose. It was to “deprive the Negro from suffrage” and “restore to white men the rightful superiority which God gave them.” The amendment passed.

In Begin Again Eddie Gaude, refers to the lies about American history. “According to these lies, America is fundamentally good and innocent….[But] the United States has always been shadowed by practices that contradict our most cherished principles.” 

Trump says that in contrast to the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project his 1776 Commission will teach a more patriotic history. I fear he wants to return to stories of white men and their wars. After all, there’s nothing like conquest to make a man feel virile. The commission will probably add a sprinkle of well-behaved women and Blacks who knew their place. Omit lynchings, Black disenfranchisement, immigrants kept in detention camps, race riots, labor riots, women arrested for distributing literature on contraception. Oh, and slavery of course, except masters who were kind to their slaves.

In her youth RBG, too, studied the “old-fashioned” approach to American history. Instead of limiting her education, though, to white men’s glorious achievements, she paid attention to the history of racial and gender inequality. To the history of Black disenfranchisement and job discrimination against Blacks and women. Instead of thinking about battles won, she focused on those yet needing to be fought—not on a battlefield but in a courtroom. And in the process she made history.

John Lewis, library cards, and my confession

John Lewis, library cards, and my confession

As I mourn with the country over the death of John Lewis and my thanksgiving for his life, my thoughts keep returning to…to library cards. In Walking With the Wind and in numerous interviews, Lewis told of being denied a library card when he was sixteen because the library was “not for coloreds.” Of the many horrendous acts of racism against him, this single event seemed to stand out as one of such emotional pain that he often returned to the story.

In the summer of 1964 my husband, a seminary student participating in an interracial ministry internship, was assigned to First Baptist Church of Raleigh, NC. The black First Baptist Church, located on the opposite side of the state capitol square from the white First Baptist Church. Having grown up in the South and attended white-only segregated schools, I could count on one hand the number of real conversations I’d previously had with a black person. 

We were warmly welcomed by this large congregation, many of its members educators and leaders in Raleigh’s black community. We lived in the “colored” part of town and were the only white faces at Sunday morning worship. One of my husband’s responsibilities was working with the youth. We went bowling with the group on Saturdays and met in different homes. Most of the kids planned to attend nearby Shaw University, the second HCBU in the Southeast. One teen, Johnny, had an amazing baritone voice and hoped to study music. 

To the topic of library cards. I was a reader. I applied for a card at the Raleigh Public Library. I knew it was the white library. That’s what to this day makes me feel so guilty: I knew. But I wanted to read.

John Lewis’s story is a harsh reminder of my choice. The youth we learned to know and love that summer had high aspirations, intellect, and talent, but they only had access to Raleigh’s “colored” library, with its sparse collection. What other resources were denied these boys and girls, many of them with Lewis’s potential?

They probably have grandchildren by now. Yes, there are laws that make public places like libraries available to all, but fifty-plus years later racism still thwarts the aspirations of black youth. Meanwhile, my white-woman privileges, if unexamined, allow that obstruction to continue. An abundant supply of books, movies, and TV shows makes that scrutiny possible. But taking advantage of the offerings requires motivation and sometimes a willingness to leave my zone of comfort.

In 1964 I knew that because I was white I had access to rows and rows of shelves filled with the latest and best of published works, historical documents, and daily newspapers. I knew that church members, many of them better educated and more intelligent than I, dare not even enter that building. Yet I weekly checked out books.

 John Lewis was denied a library card. He has died, but he inspires us all, black and white, to continue his work for justice.

Who do I trust?

I am NOT a sore loser. Though deeply disappointed when George W. Bush was elected, I took a deep breath and told myself, “This isn’t the end of the world.” 

The day after the 2016 election I was despondent. I feared (and still fear) that Trump’s election may well mean—maybe not the end of the world but the end of American democracy. My fears arose from paying close attention to what he said and tweeted during the campaign. 

Now as then his own words have made it increasingly clear that he has neither knowledge of nor respect for the Constitution. His own words have demonstrated that if facts don’t suit his purposes he’ll lie. That his brand of Christianity holds no resemblance to one that emphasizes compassion, hospitality, and justice. That he has no respect for naval officers who were prisoners of war or for parents of fallen soldiers, no respect for people with disabilities. His own words of belittlement have demonstrates his disregard for the most basic rules of civility. We can tell from what he says and tweets daily that he is not a “stable genius” but a man with a limited vocabulary who is mentally unstable. His insecurities and narcissism put our democracy and our national security at risk.

Unlike Trump I hold in high regard educated and experienced journalists, particularly those at The New York Times and The Washington Post. They are carrying out their responsibility to inform the American public, to bring to light what some leaders would like to keep in the dark. 

Through the work of professional journalists we learn that the Trump administration is forbidding public servants whose salaries we pay to speak to Congressional committees. Thanks to professional journalists we learn that Trump’s efforts to prove that Russia did not interfere in our 2016 election lead him to pressure small countries for his personal benefit. We hear him speak of a witch hunt and fake news and how Mitt Romney, who spoke critically about him, should be impeached. I for one trust professional journalists more than I trust him.

A talking point used by Republicans trying to discredit the impeachment inquiry is that Democrats won’t accept that they lost. I can’t speak for all Democrats but I’m convinced that the inquiry has nothing to do with sportsmanship and everything to do with protecting our democracy.

Thank you, Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff.

White racism, my heritage

I grew up drinking from “Whites Only” water fountains and using “Whites Only” restrooms. During seventh and eighth grades I rode the city bus to and from school, oblivious of black women and men who stood in the back while I sat. I used the public library, which I’ve learned from John Lewis’s experience, probably didn’t lend books to African Americans in my community.

I grew up in Orlando before Disney, when it was a sleepy southern town. People have told me that Florida isn’t really the South. They picture retirees and the influx of northerners wanting to work in an agreeable climate.

In 1949, thirty miles west of Orlando, four young black men were hunted down by the sheriff and the KKK when a seventeen-year-old girl claimed she’d been raped. The whole black community was terrorized, the homes of many burned to the ground. The four young men became known as the Groveland Boys. Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, by Gilbert King, tell the horrifying story.

During a recent visit to the Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL, I walked among the hanging steel columns honoring black lives taken by lynching and violence. I found the column representing Orange County, Florida. There were 34 victims, 32 of them from one night, November 2, 1920. I went to google.

I had never heard of the Ocoee Massacre. November 2 was election day. Ocoee African Americans, denied the franchise since the turn of the century, had prepared to vote. A white mob set out in search of Mose Norman, a key organizer. By the time the day was over, whites had demolished the homes of north Ocoee’s black community. This happened about 20 miles from Orlando. From 1877-1950, I learned, “Florida ranked third in the nation, with 331 lynchings” (

The Groveland Boys, the Ocoee Massacre? Events in Florida history I’d never heard of.

On the recommendation of a friend, I’ve started reading Paul Ortiz’s Emancipation Betrayed: the Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920.

If violent racism is a determining factor in whether a state is southern, Florida certainly qualifies.

Which brings me to Black History Month. We white people get off easy by honoring MLK and Rosa Parks and the known heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. I challenge white readers to delve into books that make us uncomfortable, stories that tell the truth not only about the heroes but also about the perpetrators of racial violence. Our kin.