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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 10, 2002

If you're young, black and poor, a library offers hope

By Miles M. Jackson

The mixture of libraries, books and poverty historically have stimulated some very interesting creative results among people.

Excellent examples would be August Wilson, Pulitzer Prize winner for drama; James Baldwin, novelist, playwright and poet; Ralph Ellison, novelist and essayist; and Richard Wright, novelist and essayist. The four have at least three things in common: They are African Americans; at some point in their lives, they admitted that libraries and books were central in their formative years as creative writers; and all four come from impoverished backgrounds.

A library card and access

For Richard Wright, peasant life on a Mississippi plantation was never forgotten.

His childhood consisted of moving from one southern town to the next, for part-time jobs and sporadic schooling. At 15, he ran away from home and took a job in Memphis. It was there he had his first public library experience. In his essay, "The Ethics of Jim Crow," published in 1937, he describes how he devised a way to borrow books from the library. "It was almost impossible to get a book to read. It was assumed that after a Negro had imbibed what scanty schooling the state furnished, he had no further need for books. ... One day, I mustered enough courage to ask one of the men to let me get books from the library in his name. Surprisingly, he consented. ... Armed with a library card, I obtained books in the following manner. I would write a note addressed to the librarian and sign the name of the white supervisor. I would stand at the desk, with hat in hand looking as unbookish as possible. When I received the books I would take them home." In this manner, Wright developed even deeper his passion for reading. His first published pieces were poems, articles and stories. The Federal Writers Project published one of his stories in the anthology, "American Stuff," his first book, "Uncle Tom's Children," followed by "Native Son," "Twelve Million Black Voices," "Black Boy" and "The Outsider."

Later works include "Savage Holiday," "The Long Dream," and his autobiography, "American Hunger." Much of Wright's work after he moved to Paris dealt with colonialism and Pan-Africanism.

Books and brimstone

It was as a youngster that James Baldwin discovered the library — the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library.

As a teenager, he was a voracious reader. By the time Baldwin was 14, he was a boy preacher at the storefront Fireside Pentecostal Church in Harlem. The school librarian and some of his teachers remember him as a "small, bright, sad-looking boy."

After three "hysteria-tinged years" as a preacher, he discovered that he would rather be a writer than a boy preacher. Following his first professional publication, which was a book review in The Nation, it was not long before articles and stories appeared in other magazines such as Partisan Review and Harper's.

Like many American writers, Baldwin moved to Paris in 1948. After a few years, he found that Paris was not the haven he had expected but he was able to publish his first book, a novel with a significant enough title, "Go Tell It On The Mountain." When Baldwin died in Paris in 1987, he was at work on a play and biography of Martin Luther King Jr. It is a fair assumption that Baldwin's introduction to the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library played a role in his becoming a writer.

Poetry and people

In Ralph Ellison's Shadow and Act (1964), his dedication reads, "For Mortezza Sprague, a dedicated dreamer, in a land most strange." Significantly, the dreamer had been a librarian at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama for more than 30 years.

Sprague wrote that he remembered vividly the first time he met Ellison as a freshman taking an introductory literature course. It was in the library that he discovered black poet Countee Cullen and his powerful poem, "Heritage," a work that was to make a profound change in Ellison's attitude toward himself and his people.

By the time he reached his sophomore year, he knew he wanted to be a writer. After a series of book reviews published in literary magazines and essays, Ellison published his first novel, "Invisible Man," which immediately received praise from critics. Published 50 years ago, this novel is heralded for defining Ellison's work as an African American adventure in fiction.

Words and wisdom

August Wilson, the youngest of the four writers and the only one still living, was born in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1945. He is the son of a cleaning woman who raised her children in a two-room apartment behind a store.

When his mother remarried and moved to a suburb outside of Pittsburgh, Wilson's problems began. In high school, he suffered racial taunts from white classmates. When his teacher accused him of plagiarism, he dropped out of school. He left home and found menial jobs in Pittsburgh. At 16, he embarked on a self-education program at the downtown Carnegie Public Library.

It was through the help of librarians that he was introduced to African American writers such as Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Charles Chestnut and poets such as Welshman Dylan Thomas and Amiri Baraka.

Encouraged by some of the librarians that knew him from his frequent visits to the library, he started thinking about his first play, "Jitney." "Jitney" was produced regionally and received recognition. He followed this with a succession of successful plays including Pulitzer-prize winners "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and "The Piano Lesson." All of Wilson's plays illuminate and chronicle African American life.

A path we must keep open

As we have seen from these four writers who happen to be African Americans, libraries and books offered a special ingredient in their lives at the right time to make a difference as they matured as writers.

The threat today, of curtailing Hawai'i's public library services or even closing some community libraries, is a sure way to stand in the way of our people having access to books and other information and developing their fullest potential. The state of Hawai'i must find a way to keep all our libraries open for all people, regardless of socio-economic status.

Miles M. Jackson is a University of Hawai'i-Manoa professor emeritus and and was dean of the School of Library and Information Sciences 1982-1995. He is author of "And They Came: A Brief History of Blacks in Hawai'i."