Marching Onward

Season 3, Episode 2

From Selma, Alabama to Brooklyn, New York — we look at how racial violence and racial memory impacts our country and our libraries. 

Want to learn more about the topics in this episode? Check out the following list:

Check out this list for books by and about Indigenous and Native American people. 

Episode Transcript

Eva Raison We’ve been on the road for about two hours and we still haven’t left Nashville. I’m looking at our road atlas here, and I am figuring out where we could go off on scenic roads, what towns we could be passing by.

Adwoa Adusei Way back in March, a group from Brooklyn Public Library went South to Alabama. In this particular car, it was our producer Virginia, two librarians, Nick Higgins and Edwin Maxwell, and Eva Raison, the head of outreach services at BPL, and an atlas of the Southern states… 

Eva Raison I have to look at the atlas now, I have some important atlasing to do ...

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Leave it to librarians to be the last people in the world to follow a paper atlas in 2020 ….

Adwoa Adusei This drive across tenessee and into alabama for many of the brooklyn library wokers in the car was reminist of the Freedom Rides along these same routes in the 1960s, when activists traveled on public buses to protest segregation on those buses, and then over the next few years, traveled in cars to remote areas of Mississippi to help black people register to vote. People on both those journeys encountered violence from Southerners determined to uphold a racist system. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras These moments in history nearly 60 years ago were on the minds of those library workers because this trip to Alabama was part of a fact-finding mission to see how other parts of the country talk about the history of racial violence and inequality in America. You might be thinking, what does that have to do with the library?

Adwoa Adusei A whole lot. Public libraries played a significant role in the civil rights movement. Famously, in 1961, nine Black students from Touglaoo College visited the white-only library in Jackson, Mississippi, and refused to leave after being told they could not check out books. they staged a read-in and were jailed for two days. that event encouraged college students across the country to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and there were protests and sit-ins like that at segregated public libraries before and after the Tougaloo nine.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Racial inequality continues to have repercussions for libraries today. According to the American Library Association, 88 percent of librarians are white, and 73 percent of library assistants. and the harm that was caused by segregated public libraries remains an injustice for many. The late representative John Lewis, when he accepted the national book award for his graphic novel, March, in 2016, recounted his experience walking into a public library in Troy, Alabama when he was a child.

John Lewis I grew up in rural Alabama, very poor. I remember in 1956 when I was sixteen years old, some of my brothers and sisters went to the public library and tried to get a library card. And we were told that the library was for whites only and not for Coloreds. And to come here and receive this award, this honor — it’s too much. Thank you.

Adwoa Adusei Representative Lewis would not return to that library for 57 years, when he came back to Troy to do a reading and book signing at the very library that had denied him membership.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras When, only a generation ago, Black students could be arrested for reading in public libraries, and a future Black congressmen could be be made to feel so unvalued by the public library system that he would not return for decades … then public libraries have a lot of work to do to acknowledge that history and make real steps toward racial equity.

Adwoa Adusei According to a report on public libraries by the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, ignoring racial disparities causes harm. The report concludes: “The narrative libraries have about our own goodwill can obscure one of the most basic truths of institutional racism in the 21st century: It is most present and powerful where it is unnamed and unaddressed.”

Krissa Corbett Cavouras That quote is powerful for us at BPL, because right now we are planning the renovation of a library branch in East New York that sits adjacent to a once-unacknowledged African Burial Ground. We sent representatives to Selma and Montgomery all those months ago in order to help us figure out how to properly memorialize that part of Brooklyn history, and how we can embody a more equitable story in that new building. 

Adwoa Adusei Today, on Borrowed, we’re going to dig into the history of racial violence, in Alabama, and here in Brooklyn. This is the first part of a two-part episode about race and racial memory in our country and in our libraries.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras As always, this is a story that starts at the library. I’m Krissa Corbett Cavouras.

Adwoa Adusei And I’m Adwoa Adusei. You’re listening to Borrowed.


**Ad break** Looking for another podcast to check out? We recommend: For Real from Book Riot. History buff Alice and library employee Kim are your hosts, and each week they recommend readable, approachable, and fun nonfiction (the longer the subtitle, the better). They cover everything from history to memoir, essays, narrative reporting, and more, and each week is a mix of recommendations for new and older releases. Listen to For Real on Apple Podcasts, or your podcatcher of choice!

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Edwin, Eva, Nick and our producer arrived just in time for a yearly event in Selma, when thousands of people gather to commemorate a historic moment in Civil Rights history: Bloody Sunday, the march across the now-famous Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, a march for equal voting rights that was met by violence.

[Singing "When I Lay My Burden Down"]

Adwoa Adusei On that Sunday morning in 1965, marchers set out to walk to Montgomery, Alabama — and they were met on the other side of the bridge by police carrying clubs and on horseback, as well as white onlookers with Confederate flags. State troopers beat up unarmed activists — which is how the march came to be known as Bloody Sunday. Here's sound from that day.

[Sounds of yelling]

Adwoa Adusei John Lewis, who, just seven years after he was denied a library card as a child in Alabama, became chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC — was at the march. he suffered a skull fracture and was taken to the hospital with 57 other marchers.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Though the march was stopped that day, two weeks later, even more activists than before crossed the bridge again and arrived in Montgomery. Bloody Sunday changed public opinion and led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Edwin Maxwell on the bridge in March, 2020. 
(Eva Raison, Brooklyn Public Library)

Adwoa Adusei Since that pivotal day in 1965, activists and leaders have been returning to Selma every year to honor the original marchers and to continue to advocate for voting rights and civil rights that have yet to be realized for many Americans. There were thousands of people there, many members of Black fraternities and sororities, as well as members of the NAACP voting rights contingent. There were descendants of the original marchers, and other Americans who make a point to return to this bridge year after year. For many of the people in Selma that day, the march was a re-commitment to the fight for racial equity. Here’s how Edwin Maxwell put it.

Edwin Maxwell There's this moment right before you get to the bridge, it's kind of pauses and your heart starts fluttering. I known I thought about the amount of courage it took for the people to walk over that bridge, not knowing what's going to happen to them on the other side. And also knowing what's going to happen on the other side. I don't know if there's a situation today where we would have to muster enough courage to do something so imminent. 

Adwoa Adusei Again, listeners, this was recorded in early March. I think it’s fair to say that we could and are imagining a situation where we have had to muster the courage to keep marching. On June 2, 2020 another group of protesters marched across a bridge. But this one was in Brooklyn — a week after George Floyd was murdered, Black Lives Matter activists took to the streets, marching from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and they were boxed in by police, trapped on the bridge for several hours. This is sound from that evening.

Protesters Let us through! Let us through! Let us through! Let us through!

Krissa Corbett Cavouras The work that started with the end of slavery has not stopped. It continued into the Civil Rights Movement, and it continues today, with renewed attention on the murders of black people by police and by vigilantes in the last few months. We are saying the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, Jacob Blake, and more, as people all across the world are taking to the streets. 

Adwoa Adusei But, the protests that started back in May extend beyond anger about police brutality. institutions are looking at their own policies and attempting to correct those that perpetuate racial inequity and uphold white supremacy. 

Iman Powe-Maynard I won't say that I've ever felt like I was treated ... or discriminated against by staff or patrons.

Adwoa Adusei That’s Iman Powe-Maynard, a Black woman and a children’s librarian at BPL, though she is currently the Civic Engagement Manager, and directs the library’s response to the 2020 Census.

Iman Powe-Maynard I will say that I've encountered, no pun intended, but I've been patronized. I've encountered, sort of, being dismissed by patrons. You know, unconscious bias, microagressions. 

Vivian Parham You you get used to certain expressions. Even when I say, you know, I'm a librarian, the look of surprise. And it's like, okay, well, why are you surprised by that? Is it because I'm a librarian and I'm Black, or I'm a librarian?

Adwoa Adusei Vivian Parham, that last speaker, is an adult librarian at BPL. We talked to Vivian and Iman about their experiences being librarians of color. For both Iman and Vivian, the protests in May and June against police brutality were a turning point.

Iman Powe-Maynard When George Floyd happened, I thought it was another one on the list. You know, just another killing of an unarmed Black man that we would get upset about in the Black community. And, it would fizzle out, as it always does. But, as I saw that there was this mass protests around the world, really, this was a global thing at first. And I wanted to ... I wanted to do something from my home that I was stuck in, from my computer. I just needed to talk to someone else at the library about this, like, what's happening, you know? What is this about? What are we going to do?

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Something else that came up in our conversation with Iman and Vivian was the days following some of the largest protests in Brooklyn, some of which happened right in front of Brooklyn’s Central Library in Grand Army Plaza. We made the decision then to put bit letters spelling out BLM in the windows of our building to show support for the movement. Many staff were excited about that addition, and others wanted to push our institution to do more than put signs up. 

The letters BLM in the windows of the Central branch of Brooklyn Public Library.
(Jack Cavicchi, Brooklyn Public Library)

Adwoa Adusei Working with BPL leadership, Iman, Vivian and some of their colleagues set up what we started to call "Real Talk" sessions. Virtual town halls where everyone at the library could talk about how race and racism impacts them in their jobs, and in their daily lives. On average, about 400 staff members showed up to each one of the four sessions.

Iman Powe-Maynard They had a lot to say. The organization had a lot to say and a lot of folks were uncomfortable, and a lot of folks were angry. But we're glad that we had that discussion. We opened up. I want to say we opened up some floodgates, but this is really occurring around the country at other organization, sort of this, like. social awakening. And I think it's all good. It's all great. But I still feel like we need to do a lot more. And, we haven't even we haven't even begun.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras BPL pulled together a summary based on those sessions, and now, we have our action steps, like providing workshops on how to talk about race and combating racism, and hiring more staff of color, and making sure our leadership is as diverse as our workforce. We’re also working the history and contributions made by people of color to this country into all of our programming.

Adwoa Adusei And our conversation with Vivian and Iman really made me think about what it means to be a librarian as an activist, because we are a profession that is meant to serve everyone, yet it’s increasingly clear who is getting left out. It makes me think: how can libraries and librarians be actively working toward serving those in our communities that have historically not been served? How can we take care of staff members in those communities impacted by the constant racial violence in this country, our staff who are themselves Black, Indigenous, and people of color?

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Yeah, and Iman spoke to this point, that perhaps librarianship and its ideals needs to change. She suggested that the ALA, the American Library Association, a governing body for library workers, should be leading us here.

Iman Powe-Maynard We need to document this change as our profession changes, as libraries change and change with the times. We're advocating diversity, equity and inclusion. So, it's not just racial diversity that's, you know, addressing the discrimination against LGBTQ thats advocating for the trans community that's advocating for all races, creeds, colors, genders, sex, religion. And we also in doing that are going to have a lot of pushback from folks who believe, you know, the library is a neutral space. This is what the ALA says. This is what we've been taught. This is what I learned in library school. 

Vivian Parham I don't think that our library programs are prepared us for this. They weren't, you know, we weren't prepared for social services. We weren't prepared for, you know, dealing with things like this. We were trained to find resources and do research and things like that. But. But as we're we're seeing that it's much more than that. We have to be advocate. there's there's a lot of hurt and pain out there that we have to talk. We have to use our voices and not be afraid.


Krissa Corbett Cavouras One thing we kept coming back to in our conversation was the need to talk about race, racism and tell the truth about the past. In so many ways, the stories that are told in school doesn’t give a full picture. There has been a national conversation going on for many, many years about how this country should represent our unequal and often violent racial history in order to have more honest conversations about race issues present-day

Adwoa Adusei The way we talk about our racist history is important, and it shows in what we choose to build and honor.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras That’s why Brooklyn Public Library is looking at one of its own buildings that has a particular connection to that history, the branch we mentioned earlier: New Lots Library in East New York.

Adwoa Adusei New Lots Library is located next to an old African burial ground, where the remains of enslaved and free African people were interred. That cemetery was in use up to the 19th century, and then paved over. It went unacknowledged and unmarked until several years ago, when a community member, Catherine Mbali Green-Johnson dug into the archives, found documents that proved the existence and scope of the burial ground and then worked to  bring that past back into public conversation.

Catherine Mbali Green-Johnson It's important for our youth and anyone in the neighborhood to know that the land that they stand on and they walk on is one sacred. And it was built by people who look like them. So the street name, the names of the streets around the community in and around the library as well. All Dutch, and they were mostly, largely slaveholders. Right. So, you know, these folks were committed a crime. Right. But we are … their cemetery is untouched. We know that history very well is in our books. And we study that. And it is and it's an incorrect historical view. We need to correct these stories.

A Rendering of New Lots Branch Library, erected in 1957.
(Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Not many people talk about that part of Brooklyn’s history. Nor do they talk about the racist policies that continue to impact life in East New York today.

Adwoa Adusei But that’s next time on Borrowed


**Ad break** If you are looking for another podcast to try out we would like to recommend Writ Large, it is a great podcast about how books change the world. In each episode, host Zachary Davis talks with leading scholars about one book that shaped the world we live in—whether you’ve heard of it or not. These conversations look beyond plot summaries and tell the stories behind the story. Subscribe now wherever you listen to podcasts, or download the Lyceum podcast app to hear exclusive bonus episodes. That’s LYC, EUM. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And, it wouldn’t be a Borrowed episode without a BookMatch segment! Our producer Virginia talked with Yesha Naik and Amanda Baker who put together a list of books by and about Native American and Indigenous People.

Yesha Naik So, as you know, Indigenous Peoples Day was on Monday, October 12, and we're celebrating Indigenous Peoples thorughout the year of course, at Brooklyn Public Library and beyond, but especially the months of October and November. One way to honor them is by compiling this list of books that are about Indigenous Peoples in the United States and Canada and maybe even some that are around the world. One thing that we try to focus on is having as many books on this list that are what we call Own Voices books, which means simply that the books are by people who are Indigenous.

Amanda Baker Most are eBooks, some are eAudiobooks. And you can read it any time through the months of October and November. And the reason why we did this is we wanted to bring unity and have a sense of community durind times when we can't physically be together but to be brought together by words and by these incredible books that we found. So, the first book I would like to talk about is There, There by Tommy Orange. and it is a fiction book written in multiple perspectives. And what I really liked about it is every person had a different story. But there was a lot of underlying themes of trying to find yourself, of where you fit in and kind of, trying to find who you are in a world that might not accept you. 

Yesha Naik So, this book that I wanted to share is called Take Us To Your Chief And Other Stories and it's by Drew Hayden Taylor. It's a series of short stories that are science fiction, traditional topics of science fiction are covered, from invaders from the outside world as well as space travel. But Drew Hayden Taylor, who hails from the Curve Lake First Nations in Canada, and he's an Ojibwe writer, and he basically has a fresh take on these very classic sci-fi tropes. You know, basically, comparing the implications of alien contact that we see in traditional sci-fi to the arrival of white people in the Americas, for example.

Virginia Marshall Thank you guys so much for all those wonderful recommendations. 

Yesha Naik Thank you for having us on the podcast.

Adwoa Adusei Borrowed is brought to you by Brooklyn Public Library and is hosted by me, Adwoa Adusei, and Krissa Corbett Cavouras. You can find a transcript of this episode at our website, B-K-L-Y-N Library [dot] org [slash] podcasts.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Borrowed is produced by Virginia Marshall and written by Virginia Marshall and Adwoa Adusei, with help from Fritzi Bodenheimer, Jennifer Proffitt, Meryl Friedman and Robin Lester Kenton. Our music composer is Billy Libby.  

Adwoa Adusei Borrowed will be back in a few weeks. until then, keep marching!