There are two types of people in the world, people who love books and everyone else. Maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement but there’s certainly something to the idea that people who love reading have something significant in common that people who don’t love it do not. There are areas of interest ranging from news to non-fiction to entire fictional worlds to discuss with people who share the love of reading.
I say all of that as a preface to this piece published yesterday by the NY Times titled “Is My Little Library Contributing to the Gentrification of My Black Neighborhood?” The plot of the piece is simple. The author, who is black, set up a little library kiosk on her front lawn, something she says she’d seen done in largely white neighborhoods. Then when a white couple stopped to look at her library she felt upset and worried she’s somehow contributed to gentrification:
I’d spotted the phenomenon on walks through upscale, largely white neighborhoods around Los Angeles and immediately resolved to bring it home to Inglewood. Why not? A library is not so much a marker of wealth and whiteness as it is an affirmation of community and cozy, small-town camaraderie that Inglewood, a mostly Black and Latino city in southwestern Los Angeles County, has plenty of. We deserved no less.
Then one morning, glancing out my front window, I saw a young white couple stopped at the library. Instantly, I was flooded with emotions — astonishment, and then resentment, and then astonishment at my resentment. It all converged into a silent scream in my head of, Get off my lawn!
The moment jolted me into realizing some things I’m not especially proud of. I had set out this library for all who lived here, and even for those who didn’t, in theory. I would not want to restrict anyone from looking at it or taking books, based on race or anything else. But while I had seen white newcomers to the neighborhood here and there, the truth was, I hadn’t set it out to appeal to white residents.
At least the author has the sense not to be proud of her own bigotry, though I think one could argue that she isn’t really ashamed of it either. Instead of wondering why she has such a negative reaction to white people on her lawn, she mostly wonders if she’s contributing to the downfall of her black neighborhood.
What I resented was not this specific couple. It was their whiteness, and my feelings of helplessness at not knowing how to maintain the integrity of a Black space that I had created. I was seeing up close how fragile that space can be, how its meaning can be changed in my mind, even by people who have no conscious intention to change it. That library was on my lawn, but for that moment it became theirs. I built it and drove it into the ground because I love books and always have. But I suddenly felt that I could not own even this, something that was clearly and intimately mine.
Again, the idea that a library, of all things, should be a black space (or a white space or a Hispanic space, etc.) is the real problem here. Reading can be a bridge between people who don’t have a lot else in common but the author seems to immediately wish her little bridge had a “black people only” sign on it. The author ultimately does acknowledge that she’s about one step away from behaving like white racists who flip out when a black family moves into the neighborhood, but tells herself it’s not really the same thing:
Ultimately, the moment with the couple I saw through my window raised for me a serious moral question about how I should act. Screaming at them to get off my lawn would be adopting the values of the oppressor, as my racial-justice activist father used to say. Yet my resentment was not analogous to the white resentment of generations past (and of now, I’d argue).
The author may not have shouted “Get off my lawn!” but clearly that’s at least partly how she felt on the inside. After wrestling with all of this, her takeaway is not that she probably should have gone outside and greeted the neighbors who stopped by her little library. Her takeaway is that “the casual displacement of Black people” is “untenable, even immoral.”
Ultimately this is a sad story. The author intuitively sought to create community through sharing and openness but her politics warped that into a stern lecture on racial resentment and a kind of replacement theory in reverse. None of that is what little libraries are supposed to be about. It seems to me this is just another example of how wokeness ruins everything.
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