And yet I knew that when someone thought of my small town (population around 17,000 - but that’s being very generous, really) they might ask themselves why I felt an event like this was a perfect fit for my patrons. According to the 2014 census the African American population of my small mountain town in New Mexico is .07%. For New Mexico as a whole, the African American population is 2.5%. That, of course, was exactly why I thought it was a perfect fit.
It is White people’s racism that makes us think African American literature is only for African Americans. By that same account, it is our work as White people to dismantle this misconception. No one assumes only White people will want to read Shakespeare or, say, Emily Dickinson. We are taught those works are universal, they are for everyone. But too often, racism tells us that books by Native people or POC are only for the members of those groups. We conveniently forget the windows element of “doors and windows” and assume that means minority groups have windows into the White experience.
The African American Read-In was the perfect chance for my libraries to open some windows. And to share some great books - of course. For one week, we designed all our programs for 0-5 around books and songs by African American artists and writers. We sang and danced to Ella Jenkins songs and read Langston Hughes poems at Toddler Time. After school, we lined the spaces of our reading circle with books by African American authors and read picture books by Jacqueline Woodson and N Joy out loud. In the second year of our celebration, three local AP English classes visited from the high school and spent an hour reading picture books. We designed a program for our homeschool book club around Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach.
Because I had a clear vision of how I wanted these programs to happen, getting staff buy-in wasn’t really hard. Instead of vaguely hand-waving “let’s do something for Black History Month, I guess?” the African American Read-In gave staff some real direction and a framework. From there, it was easier to see why we were doing this - and measure impacts.
In each of these programs, we talked to patrons about the African American Read-In and we shared bookmarks we’d downloaded from the NCTE toolkit. We always had piles of books (for all ages) by African American authors and illustrators on hand and encouraged them to check them out or even just browse through them. One thing I trained my staff on in preparation for these events was that we wanted to be deliberate about these programs. I didn’t want to present it as an incidental program - I wanted patrons to understand that planning and thought had gone into these events, that our library was choosing to promote and spotlight this work. I agree that we, as White Librarians, need to do more than just talk about and use these books during Black History Month. But I also love that the African American Read-In takes place in February. It’s a way to do more than make a display but to put the titles in hands and in action. Every time we saw how children laughed or were entranced by this work, it was a reminder that these books are for everyone during every month of the year. Using them, programming around them, thoughtfully choosing them, watching patrons embrace them made a much stronger impact and meant so much more than just putting them out with a “It’s February, You Know The Drill!” sign.
This year, during one of the AP English classes sessions, a particularly intense boy suddenly started waving his hand around, calling me over. It was such an elementary school gesture for a senior in high school to make, it made me smile. When I walked over to him, he had two books spread out in front of him, a juvenile non-fiction book and picture book.
“Look,” he whispered, gesturing at them both insistently, “they are both about - about - Gullah.” He was especially proud that he had made this connection and he was grinning at me.
I realized this very smart almost 18 year old boy had never heard of Gullah before. “Yes,” I said. “Gullah is a language and a group of people.” He was nodding but had already looked away and was reading the notes in the books. He mostly, I think, just wanted to show me what he’d found. He was already back to the books.
This encounter is why I knew the African American Read-In was valuable, essential even, to my patrons. Windows matter. So do White librarians unequivocally standing up for the concept that these books deserve a place in our collection and our programming because they are relevant, useful, and even joyful for everyone. Promoting and programming for the African American Read-In has been eye-opening for patrons and staff, which was another goal. It’s on White librarians to start the progress and push forward on the idea that books by African American authors, any by Native writers and other writers of color, are for all our patrons: no matter where we’re located.
The African American Read-In was our first push forward at my library, but it won’t be our last. I urge you to look at your community connections and your programs and see how you can participate in the African American Read-In next year. It’s not too early to start planning now.
Here's some pictures from our Read-Ins!