On Responsibility

Every year for Black History Month, I make a special reading list—Harlem Renaissance poetry, African American children’s books, etc. But last year, I spent the whole month on one book: In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens by Alice Walker.

It was so good that I wanted to read it slowly, and I actually didn’t finish it until May, but it was worth it. This book, a collection of essays spanning decades of Walker’s work, features a lot of great quotable moments about the life of the mind and about life in general, but as I was reading, one passage stopped me in my tracks:

“The real revolution is always concerned with the least glamorous stuff. With raising a reading level from second grade to third. With simplifying history and writing it down (or reciting it) for the old folks […] The dull, frustrating work with our people is the work of the black revolutionary artist.  It means, most of all, staying close enough to them to be there whenever they need you.”

When I read this quote, from Walker’s essay The Unglamorous but Worthwhile Duties of the Black Revolutionary Artist, my immediate thought was that one day, when I have a job that comes with an office, I’m going to frame this quote and hang it on my wall. It so perfectly sums up the reasons why I entered librarianship and my goals as a writer, and it inspires me to keep going, even when I’m having difficulties. Sometimes, when I’ve had a particularly trying day, I find myself muttering it under my breath…the real revolution is always concerned with the least glamorous stuff.

As an African American library professional, I often feel a tug of responsibility, a desire to represent my culture and my community well. You can replace the phrase “black revolutionary artist” with whatever you like—Jewish revolutionary welder or Chicana revolutionary biology teacher or Mississippian revolutionary bartender—but the sentiment remains the same. We are born into communities and cultures that affect and enhance the way we see the world, process information, and relate to one another, and we can’t afford to overlook the responsibilities we have as members of these groups.

For instance, while working at the public library, I sometimes find that certain patrons only feel comfortable coming to me for help, and I’m okay with that. In fact, I’m in favor of anything that gets anyone to use a library whether it’s creative programming or the latest materials or my smiling brown face. Getting people in the door and keeping them coming back is pretty much the goal of any library, and I’m honored to play my part in that, especially if it means that people who wouldn’t normally use the library will begin to see it as a welcoming place, a place where they, too, belong.

The librarian is in a position of influence, and it wouldn’t be a post on responsibility if I didn’t say this: with great power comes great responsibility. There are still a lot of people who see librarians as the keepers of information, the ones who reign at the reference desk, the academics who are not to be bothered. But by embracing commonalities, whatever they may be, librarians can begin to establish ourselves as people who just want to help, and what can be better than that?

So now it’s your turn, fellow hackers. Do you feel a sense of responsibility?  Be sure to leave your comments below or chat with me on Twitter @iamandahope.

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