• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Are Libraries Too White?

April 2019

Having been immured within a house of ideas for the better part of one’s life, it’s understandably difficult to avoid being captured in ridiculous thoughts. It happens from time to time to a person so situated. Like snares or magnets intermittently placed, silly thoughts eventually come to possess us all. The origin of their attraction isn’t entirely clear: maybe it’s they who find us, perhaps it’s us who seek them, but only by dispensing with our reason can they make in our minds a permanent home. The length of their stay is our decision to make. The responsibility for their habitation is on us. We are the doormen and the landlords of our beliefs. Ultimately, it is up to our discretion to decide who comes, who stays, and who goes.

Those among us allegedly of the most learned type (a group to whose membership I humbly profess no claim) are too often unaware of the silliness to which they’ve been made vulnerable in the midst of all their thoughts. A surfeit of insights, etched into pages over centuries like ancient erosions and imprints on stones, ideas have upon us a gradual but noticeable effect. Usually, the effect is good. Sometimes it’s bad, and it’s the bad effects of which we must be keenly aware. Rather than illumine, they can easily mislead one’s thought. Such is the pedagogical paradox—too much learning can corrupt the mind, while too little always desiccates it. In such a case, so altered a mind becomes subjected to delusion—and delusion is the most despotic of kings.

A librarian—officious and prudish, yes, but very distant in character to a despot—is nevertheless vulnerable to the tyranny of thought. For one thing, surrounding her for all hours of all days (save those that are publicly observed) is every conceivable idea. She has before her every last word by which our culture is defined and for which so much of us live.

On top of that, if so eclectically-endowed, she probably has every word by which every other culture is defined. Perhaps it’s because of the embarrassment of her literary riches, or perhaps it’s because her pedantic idleness, or perhaps it’s because of her multicultural bent that she’s led to claim, quite peremptorily yet with no great shock, that libraries are too white.

As were the Oscar’s, as is society, so too, it appears, have libraries become insufferably far too white.

There was a time when Kipling coined the phrase, “the white man’s burden” and it was taken as a moral appeal. Irrespective of the poetic brilliance with which that Indo-Anglican painted the world, the entirety of this concept was patronizing and cruel. Now, however, the white man himself is the burden. Writing for the Library Journal, a disgruntled and garrulous Sofia Leung proclaimed that “Library collections continue to promote and proliferate whiteness with their very existence and the fact that they are physically taking up space in our libraries…they are paid for using money that was usually ill-gotten and at the cost of black and brown lives via the prison industrial complex, the spoils of war, etc.” From so prominent a librarian (Leung is employed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), it’s admittedly distressing to hear so shocking a claim.

Doubtless, there are points about which she and I could argue and I’m sure she’s a person from whom I could learn. If given the chance, I would ask her whether or not Benjamin Franklin—father not only of the American library system as we know it, but of the lighting rod, the fire brigade (perhaps a consequence of that rod) and the nation itself—secured the funding for his library at the cost of black and brown lives? Certainly, it was his indomitable curiosity as opposed to his latent and abiding racism that led to the erection of Philadelphia’s first home for books. And, so far as the limitations of my knowledge extend, it was upon his model that all subsequent libraries were built. As for the prison-industrial complex and the spoils of war, I can’t imagine how our greatest civic achievement—the public library, beautifully entrenched in every community and accessible to all—has exploited the former or benefitted from the latter.

Aside from those issues, for which Leung hopefully has crafted a thoughtful explanation for our reading pleasure, there’s the insidious idea she’s put forth that libraries are too white. Better said, it’s the works of which our libraries are composed that are in fact too white.

The idea of society as being “too white” has become the progressive’s platitude over the course of the past few years. As a self-consciously white man, it pains me not, but I’ll admit to feeling that it’s a somewhat unimaginative and tiresome appeal. That said, it’s a contention—though not yet successful in convincing me—that’s never failed to bewilder me. It should of course be noted that libraries, if properly adorned, comprise the best that has been thought in the history of the mental life of man. At the risk of sounding just a bit too proud of the culture whence I personally come, that which has been best thought is unequivocally found in the West. Yet by using that unavoidably amorphous word I don’t mean America and Europe exclusively—that much-cherished Atlantic alliance of the old world and the new—but rather every nation influenced by a shared Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman creed. By contending that libraries are “too white”, Leung is also—in so many words—regurgitating the trite idea that Western Civilization is itself “too white”. Enamored of our civilization as I am (a civilization, one might add, of which Leung is a part), this noxious idea has always irked me.

It should also be noted that Leung is maintaining as her implicit premise that whiteness is an inherently bad thing. So bad is it, in fact, that whiteness is something from which we must all run as if the mere color were itself an approaching miasma or plague. Having a dog in this fight (I’m white), this too has always struck me as a concept equally disquieting as it is odd.

White people, men in particular, haven’t a monopoly on ignominy. We’re not solely responsible for the ills of the world. I don’t mean to come off as excessively exculpatory and in need of support, but badness—however defined—is a public shame in which we all have a share. If the perpetuation of slavery in the American colonies is the rationale for your despising white men especially, your literacy as it pertains to historical facts must be open to question. Remediation rather than outrage is what’s needed in such a case.

Slavery, much like poverty, has been for thousands of years the natural condition of man. A horrible condition, doubtless, but one by which our species was happy to abide for most of its known history. Americans enslaved Africans, of this we’re too painfully aware, but so too did Muslims and Europeans and for far longer a time. What’s more, Muslims enslaved Europeans, Europeans enslaved Muslims, and both enslaved themselves. Often, this was the natural consequence of territorial expansion or of war (consider the fate of the poor Queen Hecuba after the fall of Troy. She was, as were her daughters, the hard-earned spoils of war—a dysphemism, I should think, for a wretched slave). And yes, Africans enslaved each other as well: those from the coasts placed in fetters those in the interior. And who’s to say we can leave out Asia? Certainly, that massive, ancient civilization can’t seek exclusion from this terrible list.

Yet while other insouciant civilizations carried on in this trade of flesh, only one civilization determined (at, mind you, a great economic cost) to put it to an end. Not surprisingly, that was the decision of Western civilization—a move that might’ve brought it approbation but has since only been ignored. While every other civilization considered only commerce, the West was burdened with ethics. Costly scrupulosity, rather than easy servility was the West’s choice. One of many to engage in the institution, the West was the first to enjoin it. All that said, however, the tired slogan continues on: if we’re to become a more enlightened, more culturally sensitive, and more humane society, whiteness must be silenced.

Yet the words of our civilization’s greatest thinkers won’t soon become mute; their voices are too resonant and too important, their contributions to knowledge and beauty too inspiring—regardless of the color of their skin. Yet even to say that the color of their skin was homogenously and therefore odiously white is to mislead the credulous reader taking to heart Leung’s statements of contempt. Cervantes was a Spaniard, Dante an Italian, while Pythagoras was something of a proto-Turk. Alexander Hamilton was technically Caribbean, Augustine was North African—his melanin dictated by the hot sun of the Maghreb—while Jesus and Moses were sons not only of God, but of the often torrid Levant. You see, if white is your bête noire, these men whose thought was germinal to the Western canon don’t quite fit the bill.

My intention isn’t to work in semantics. Though the provenance of each man mentioned above perhaps belies the fact, I know that all the aforementioned names are—at least based on the general consensus—white. The point is that they had and expressed great and powerful ideas, no matter the variegated hues of their skin. And considering that libraries are supposed to be the repositories of all that is best said and thought throughout the ages of our species’ life, they’d do well to blind themselves to childish, overly-academic questions of melanin.

It’s here that the librarian, the academician, and the progressive filled with platitudes goes a bit too far. Too deeply immersed in their own ridiculous ideas have they become to consider more sober thoughts. I would recommend that she pick up and read, as did Augustine (an African of Algerian birth) and appreciate the glories of Western thought.

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