I’m at the National Diversity in Libraries Conference 2016 this week, which is hosted at UCLA. This morning, the opening keynote speaker, Lakota Harden, left her notes on the podium and decided to speak from the heart. She shared a bit of her experiences growing up on a reservation, being the descendant of individuals who have endured horrible things as a result of federally sanctioned genocide. She spoke about attending boarding school and losing her language, because they were not permitted to use the words they’d been born into. She spoke about sitting at her great-grandmothers’ knees and regaining a little bit what she’d been torn away from, what her ancestors had been torn away from. She spoke of remembering and honoring the pain, of acknowledging the truth. And she spoke to the tearing away that many have descended from in the name of colonization. She also spoke of the existing wounds that her people, the Lakotas, bear and the deep wounds of American Indians across the nation. The poverty and broken families. The alcoholism and drug use. The homelessness and imprisonment. The atrocities that continue. And the people who come to reservations in search of the dead, expecting the living to perform a nativeness that is contrived. People who will open hands, wanting, needing to get rather than to give and just be present. She spoke of the borrowing…stealing of cultural values and practices by majority cultures that don’t take the time to know the humanity behind them. As she spoke, it resonated with me. Not just because I appreciated her sharing and was moved by her honesty, but because, as she said, we all have backgrounds filled with woundings that we’ve had to live through, cope with, and survive. And for many of us, we’re still trying to find our survival.
As a librarian of color, and more specifically, as an African American woman in the United States, I’ve had to come to terms with the heaviness that is my cultural heritage. Like Lakota, I have found the beauty amidst the sorrow, but it comes from acknowledging that past. Often, like her, I hear people say things like, “Well, slavery was hundreds of years ago, don’t you think it’s time you guys moved on?” or “Why don’t you guys [black people] stop protesting and just get a job? or “Why don’t parents in urban communities care about their children?” No one is really interested in talking about the past, because it’s messy and it’s painful. But the things we witness today are deeply rooted in a continual cycle of loss and trauma. To break that cycle, we have to talk about it. And we have to acknowledge that it is, and will continue to be, the legacy that some communities have to deal with.
Trauma brings about injury and unless those injuries are directly addressed, it’s impossible to move on. When talking about issues of poverty and lack of education in urban communities of color, it makes me sad that the conclusion too often drawn is that parents don’t care about their kids. Sure, there are always the exceptions, but I think deep-down, the vast majority of parents care about their kids. But how does one cope with challenge after challenge without relief? For individuals in impoverished communities (and poverty doesn’t always look like slum towns), I believe there is a great deal of depression and mental health issues that have gone unnoticed and unaddressed for generations. Wounds that go unaddressed continue to fester and these generational symptoms of brokenness continue to plague my community as well as hers.
Lakota spoke of being inspired by the strength of her ancestors and invoked the strength of the ancestors of any people group who has ever suffered loss and trauma, whether the separation was chosen or not. When I first came into librarianship, it was through genealogy. I discovered the archives while investigating my own family history. Through uncovering details about my grandparents and great-grandparents, and gg-grandparents, I learned more about the nuances of American history and the role that individuals and communities play in shaping futures.
In America, racism has played a huge role in the shaping of futures, both for people of color and those who are not. For the black community, racism didn’t just mean slavery. It continued well beyond that. It meant laws and a legal system that was designed and upheld to keep blacks in a subhuman status. It meant not having access to certain types of employment. It meant not having funding for quality education resources. It meant not being able to travel through certain towns after dark or being able to use the same restroom or water fountain. It meant having to step off the sidewalk if a white person walked towards you, or having to avert your eyes for fear of being regarded as disrespectful. With the consequences being great. It meant being called out of your name and being reminded at every instance that you are less than. It meant being made to walk to school, while the white kids rode the bus and having your change slapped on the counter while someone else got to have theirs in their hand. It meant being told that the closer you were to white, the better you were. It meant being denied love and marriage to the person you cared about, just because of the way your skin looked. It meant being you could be a crime. It meant being you could be worthy of death. And the law would look the other way, because sometimes the person under that hood or behind that gun, was the law. It meant you didn’t know who you could trust and so you had to build your own communities and economic infrastructure. But then it meant losing all of that, sometimes over and over again, at the whim of a people who didn’t want you to succeed.
And this wasn’t 1865. It wasn’t 1967. For some, this type of legal ostracizing ended as late as the 1980s or 1990s. For many, it continues today under different labels and ways of being.
It causes scars.
Trauma is life changing and when your people experience trauma after trauma for generations, it has an impact.
As people, as a profession, the core of what the communities we serve are asking for is to be recognized as human. To find a place where they are not made to be othered in a way that shadows the trauma they’ve already felt for so much of their existence and the existence of all the blood that runs through their DNA.
Acknowledging truth isn’t about shaming or blaming, but it is about giving voice to those who have been silenced for so long. For any people group who has known trauma and injustice, there will be parallel stories. When we talk about making the LIS profession a space that is welcoming and inclusive, we need to start by acknowledging and then sitting in that. Sometimes in silence, if we need to. It also means owning our collective pasts and the roles our pasts have played in affecting the pasts of others.
It’s a lot. I know it’s a lot, but since our profession exists for the building and edification of people and the preservation and sharing of information, we don’t really have the luxury of picking and choosing which groups get included, whether explicitly or implicitly.