been thinking about my love/hate relationship with libraries: a lifelong thing.
my youngblood love of libraries is well-documented in this poem “vines” that i wrote for the opening of the new logan branch of the free library of philadelphia in 2017 during my term as philadelphia poet laureate.
libraries have been havens & caves of inquiry for me. i have fond memories that don’t easily fade. it was more than the free air conditioning & the juicy book haul home. like the big giant dictionary at gwyn-nor elementary where the word “sex” was circled & smudged multiple times. the smell of the stacks. the brass drawer pulls of the card catalog cabinet.
this card was the beginning of my career and identity as a writer. in third grade, i wrote a book entitled famous sports people, a collection of vignettes about my sports heroes including wilma rudolph, mary lou retton, & sugar ray leonard. the book was published in the gwyn-nor elementary school’s library complete with a card catalog number. & as you can see, i had readers, y’all. two years later in fifth grade, i published freedom, my first volume of poems. the exercise of writing poems & then compiling them into a book became a lifelong rhythm & pursuit in high school, college, & graduate school.
the skillman library at lafayette college, where i was an undergraduate, was another place i walked the line between reader & author. my honors thesis, a collection of poems, is in the archives there, & the librarians have featured my new work in exhibitions & displays alongside black women writers i admire & respect.
it’s curious: as a kid growing up & exploring the far reaches of my literacy, the library was an ocean of possibilities. but as an adult, having a clear direction & sense of which lakes & rivers i want to swim in, my experiences in these spaces, coupled with the vestiges of their roots in segregation & exclusion, have become more challenging & fraught with power dynamics. they require my resistance & reckoning.
this still from a scene in the 1959 film black orpheus, when orpheus visits the office of missing persons to find eurydice, came to mind as I started writing about libraries. the film recounts the myth of orpheus & eurydice against the backdrop of carnival in rio de janeiro, brazil. this scene takes place after eurydice is killed by a sinister, leotarded death figure. before orpheus can get there to save her or see her body, she is taken away to the city morgue in an ambulance. he wanders the city looking for her & comes to the office of missing persons. his frustration is evident. he hasn’t found who he was looking for among the stacks & stacks of pages. the caretaker says “but you won’t find any missing persons among that paper. on the contrary, that’s where they go missing.”
i’ve felt this way in libraries, too. when the library or the archive or the special collection is not a haven but an empty hell of information you’d like to find but can’t. like the names of my enslaved ancestors. the plantations they worked. or that lost final book of poems by phillis wheatley. there are many pieces of information i have sought in libraries, but what i was looking for had been lost, erased, never recorded, or was packed away in a box in the basement, uncatalogued & silent with horrors.
what i love & demand from libraries is that the preciousness of the objects therein will never outweigh the preciousness of the people who walk through their doors. or that the preciousness of objects can contain the preciousness (and evils) of people. in gram’s house if you broke a knick knack it wasn’t the end of western civilization; it was a reckoning, for sure, but not a crime.
what i love & demand from libraries is that they don’t regard themselves as the absolute end-all or the container that holds everything. i dig the notion & examples of fugitive libraries that have sprung up since the 1950s by black folks who knew libraries could not contain everything they wanted to know.
what i love & demand from libraries is that they feel less like extensions of the morgue. that they take on more flesh & less fortress.
what i love & demand from libraries is that they don’t make more seats for the dead than the living. or maybe what i want is more for the dead who were done wrong.
from libraries like ours here in philadelphia that occupy and take up so much space, i want, as ntozake shange says, “the love space demands.”
libraries have been safe, gathering spaces for me, but i want more. i sense their greater potential. they mean something more than a giant ship steered by the wealthiest trustees & stealthiest foundations. truly free libraries belong to the people.
Yolanda Wisher is a poet, musician, educator and curator based in Philadelphia. She is the author of Monk Eats an Afro and the co-editor of Peace is a Haiku Song. A Cave Canem and Pew Fellow, she was the 3rd Poet Laureate of Philadelphia. She is currently the Co-Director of Curatorial Programs and Curator of Spoken Word at Philadelphia Contemporary.