Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Warmth of Other Suns

This evening at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland, was special. The line wrapped around the corner of 14th Street at Martin Luther King Jr. as people lined up to hear Isabel Wilkerson talk about her book: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration.

The free Wednesday evening event just spoke to what libraries are all about--telling stories, convening audiences who might not have met otherwise. As Wilkerson said, we have more in common than we differ, and the stories she shares in Warmth capture a period in American history previously undocumented the way she tells it. I am so looking forward to reading the book--I have been on the OPL waiting list for the past month. I hope my number comes up soon (smile).

As Wilkerson spoke about her parents who met in Washington D.C. whom she stated, fortuitous for her, without such she wouldn't have been born, others in the room that evening shared similar histories, that is, the migrations connection to their lives.

The span of the black migration was wide, regions relocating in geographic waves, Wilkerson pointed out, evident in the hands that went up when the author asked whose family was from Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas--California populated by people from those areas of the south.

Similar to other immigrants, these southern populations impacted the culture of the places they settled, especially musically we learned as the author shared the stories of Michael Jackson’s family, Diana Ross's, Miles Davis's and John Coltrane's. Through gentrification and systematic displacement, most of that physical legacy of these early black communities is now almost gone.

Wilkerson spoke about the caste system, a system another author, Michelle Alexander, speaks about in present terms in her award winning book: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan spoke briefly. She pushed the parcel tax scenario when asked about keeping AAMLO open. Parcel taxes to raise money for library services have been passed before. Remember Measure O and its companion, Measure Q. Each guaranteed longer hours, more materials and better services. Measure Q is in effect through 2024. Shouldn't the discussion be, where is that money, what happened to City of Oakland promises to pay for matching funds, before asking for more?

KTOP was there taping the program, so Oakland audiences will be able to see the author talk later. I reflected on Richard Wright as Wilkerson ended with the Wright quote she takes her title from. On the occasion of Richard Wright's centennial birth, his daughter Julia Wright joined us at the Annual African American Celebration through Poetry at the West Oakland Branch Library from Paris via phone. She spoke about her father and read some of his haiku poetry. I later met her at the Critical Resistance 10 Conference at Laney College in Oakland, California.

In Black Boy I recall Wright's reflection on going to the library and having to have a white co-worker forge notes for him so he could check out books. Black people couldn't check out books in Chicago at that time. Discrimination was not limited to the south, something Wright wrote about in his memoir and in the Native Son--

Wright knew southerners were not the only black people confused over their place. He writes about this often dangerous discomfort in his sequel to Black Boy, American Hunger. Confused, his factual and fictional characters try to navigate this terrain with varying degrees of success.

His northern experience is not the happy picture Wilkerson painted in her story this evening, yet even in its bleakness, Wright's experience in the north was more than he could have imagined back home. He had a job and opportunity to grow intellectually even if that growth was isolated and lonely.

Wilkerson’s book rings a chord just because the reasons half the black population in the south left are ironically present with us today— second class citizenship and an urban caste system one inherits merely by the color of one’s skin or the block one lives on. In Oakland, the funding for public education is supposedly not affected by where one lives, but we all know that’s a popular myth which is certainly untrue.

Both authors, Wilkerson and Alexander, speak about a caste system, Alexander’s is more pressing if one looks at Oakland where more youngsters are caught in the judicial web in civically sanctioned curfews—more like house arrest. When one casually polls Oakland youth, more often than not, many of them are in some sort of custody—that is, they are enslaved and not free.

What does a kid do to change his or her circumstances? How is true transformation accomplished? Knowledge is the change agent, knowledge of oneself and knowledge of one’s world. This travel takes place quite often in books.

Malcolm X speaks of this often. People said of him that they always saw him with some reading material in his hands. Look at the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, its foundation centered on political education. Members were given books and got together regularly to discuss what they read.

Literacy is the mark of civilization and culture. Free libraries are so important! They are more important in the places where one feels the least safe than the places where the crime and violence is minimal.

Ignorance is the worse type of criminal act—it is genocide! When one has lost access to information, when an entire community has lost access to information that can transform its thinking and awaken its consciousness then this act—that is, the suspension of access to information and knowledge more effectively decimates a people than all the CIA dumping of crack and guns in urban communities.

These urban safe houses or libraries are where transformation takes place—libraries connect communities to each other, libraries also help people find themselves, even those who weren’t aware they were lost prior to stumbling in.

I used to think heaven was a library and the librarians angels. How can one be surrounded by so much information and not be a change agent—

I have lived in Oakland a long time. Raised in San Francisco and born in New Orleans, I remember the Greyhound bus ride when I was three with my mother and little brother to San Francisco to meet my dad, who sent us the ticket when he was released from Angola State prison, the largest state prison in the United States. Angola is also a former slave plantation, today the prisoners descendants of former enslaved Africans, the guards and prison administrators, descendants of former slave holders.

Uncanny coincidence isn't it?

Literary is close to me. I can touch it. I can touch the places in my life when people who looked like me couldn’t vote because they couldn’t read and write well enough to pass the test. My mother’s sisters were in public school, segregated schools when the governor of Louisiana closed down public education rather than have black kids attend with white kids. Do you know that for an entire year they were out of school? The white kids had private schools, but most of the black kids were dependent on public education.

It is the same with libraries. Where are the poorer kids going to go when the libraries shut down? Their parents aren’t going to be able to buy them all the books they want to read and what about those books out of print? Those rare titles? It will be what happened to the elders and the sick and shut in the disabled when the Oakland Public Library's Book Mobile was stopped. These patrons no longer have access to reading material. With the aging of our population, studies have shown that the more active we are mentally, the less likely early senility.

Reading is preventative medicine and prolongs the quality of one’s life.

I have lived in Oakland over 30 years and have served ten years on the Library Commission and on the Friends of the Oakland Public Library Board where as a writer for Off the Shelf (FOPL newsletter) wrote a profile on all the branches which numbered, at that time, 13, plus the Oakland History Room. As a columnist for the Oakland Tribune’s "Good News," Oakland Public Library featured often in my column as I highlighted delightful people.

I am a trustee of the Northern California Center for African American History and Life, the organization that partnered with the OPL to establish the African American Museum and Library, at Oakland. I knew many of the founders. I heard them talk about their vision for AAMLO and why such an institution is so important then and now.

I work for Peralta Community Colleges as a tenured professor, English faculty at the College of Alameda. I raised my children in West Oakland, and started, 21 years ago in February The African American Celebration through Poetry, the oldest program in the OPL system. I am a volunteer. When I started it, it was to keep the West Oakland Public Library open. The administrators felt that the West Oakland community, at that time, majority African and American didn’t need the branch open—so they would snatch staff and close the branch.

I remember all the measures and bills passed to secure the funding for library hours and staffing, also seismic retrofitting. Many a February approached, including 2011, when we weren’t sure if the West Oakland Branch Library would be open on the weekends. Several programs were spent getting the audience to write letters to council and the mayor to keep the branch open. And we survived another year and another year.

I have a long memory, most black people have to, as we aren't the one's telling the stories and so we have to remember things the way they were and pass it on. I remember all the branch librarians at West Oakland, Christine Saed, now Veronica Lee, and the library directors, Martin, Billie Dancy . . . at that time, most of them supportive of community programming and libraries as integral to community life and services. Mayor Elihu Harris was one of our best library supporters. He even visited the West Oakland Branch when we got computers.

I don’t understand why libraries are even on the cutting floor 2011-12 fiscal year. It is like sucking the oxygen out of the room and expecting us to live. The libraries are never a deficit item, and when these taxes are passed, the promises made to voters, at least where libraries are concerned are never kept.

What is to say this one will be? The general fund is a huge black hole that gobbles up resources irrespective of earmarks, at least where libraries and other important services, like Parks and Rec, the Arts, which includes the Film Office, and Senior Services, are concerned. If those departments which make life really worth living are always in jeopardy, what does that say about American society?

Why protect a life void of content? If one has nothing to live for, all the police on the street don’t matter. The value is internal and for some people that lesson is not intuitive—it has to be learned and how else than in a book about some great man or woman one can believe in?

I own a house in East Oakland, so all tax proposals affect my pocket. I don’t see the benefits of any city funding in my neighborhood—whether that is paved streets or bike paths, not to mention speed bumps or other public safety concerns like diesel trucks parked on residential streets, an environmental pollution concern. Just the other day my neighbor's dog was hit by a car and killed.

I am not opposed taxes when there are guarantees, just like the ones that are keeping the work around Lake Merritt on task as bus lines are cut and the death of Oakland is on the table—if you shut the libraries you kill our city.


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