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Preparing for the Challenges Ahead

by Felton Thomas on January 10, 2017

As a young African American boy of the ’70s, the racism and discrimination I faced were much more virulent and present than what my teenage daughters face today. I can distinctly remember my school bus being rocked side to side by white parents as myself and other African American children were being bused to an all-white school in Las Vegas to desegregate it. I distinctly remember a teacher in high school telling me that my poem was far too well-written to have been created by me, and that another student must have written it for me. And I can distinctly remember the countless times that I was used by school administrators as the “poster child” for what a “good black child” should be to other African American kids in my schools.

These memories, that many of us have tried to suppress deep within us, come to the forefront of our minds at times. Recently, I was watching the video of Congressman John Lewis accept the National Book Award for young people’s literature and these and other long forgotten memories were dragged to the forefront of my consciousness. If you haven’t seen the video, Congressman Lewis becomes overwhelmed with emotion as he recounts an incident in which he and his family were refused service at the local library because they are African American. These memories still hold great passion, and it is for this reason that many of us have become disquieted and frankly alarmed at the results of the election. We have worked so hard to try and change people’s hearts that it has been a shock that we haven’t changed as many as we thought. We don’t want our children to face the same indecencies that we faced a generation ago.

I am proud of our Public Library Association. The staff is working hard to identify resources that will help public libraries deal with these post-election challenges and make them easily available. More importantly, beyond providing the resources our public libraries need, we are standing up for our values, which is why PLA released this statement soon after the election:

Inclusiveness is a core value of the Public Library Association. The public library has an unparalleled ability to bring people and knowledge together, especially in times of uncertainty and division. We are places of learning, free inquiry, and free speech for people of all ages and backgrounds.

As such, our nation’s public libraries stand as a bulwark to intolerance and a beacon of opportunity. We are committed to ensuring a safe place for all that reflects and serves the diversity of our nation in our collections, programs, and services. With thousands of public libraries in towns and neighborhoods across the country, we invite community conversations and action that further understanding and address local needs.

PLA will work to develop resources that public libraries can use to support these critical conversations in their communities. Members will be apprised of all future developments as they become available.

As I reflect on these words, I harken back to an incident that happened at a Las Vegas library in the early ’90s. One of the best supervisors I have ever had was working the busy reference desk with a group of us when an elderly gentleman walked up
and asked for help. My supervisor asked how could she help him to which he replied, “I only want to be helped by someone who
speaks English.” My supervisor, who was Japanese, and everyone there beside her stopped in disbelief. It was obvious that she had just spoken to him in very plain English, and as an American born person of Japanese descent she had no accent. However, the man again repeated his earlier statement as he glared at my supervisor. I and others started to say something, but with grace my supervisor stopped us and told the man that someone would help him shortly.

While we cannot return this type of hatred with similar uncivility, we can no longer return it with similar grace. If the election has taught us anything, it is that standing quietly on the sidelines simply emboldens those who oppose our values. Join me and PLA as we ensure that public libraries are a safe place—free of intolerance for our communities and our staff.

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