Libraries and Hours Ask a Librarian

John Henrik Clarke Africana Library

Open until 5pm - Full Hours /

John Henrik Clarke and COVID-19

History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day, it is also a compass people use to find themselves on the map of human geography. History tells a people where they have been, what they have been, where they are and what they are. Most importantly history tells people where they still must go and what they still must be.” –John Henrik Clarke

 

 

The namesake of Cornell University’s Africana Library, John Henrik Clarke, reminds us of the important role that studying history plays in the shaping of our reality.  In this COVID-19 environment many of us wear a mask as a means of protecting each other, and in too many cases going to work or the grocery store seems like a life-and-death decision. Dr. Clarke may very well want us to understand how people of African descent in the United States have been disproportionately affected by this virus, as recently reported by The Annals of Epidemiology (July 2020). Having access to information like this report is important to researchers, or anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of how COVID-19 impacts the Black community. The report says the following:

 

“Emerging evidence suggests that black Americans are at increased risk for COVID-19 morbidity and mortality. Although it may be counterintuitive that a newly identified virus that can infect anyone would rapidly manifest pronounced racial disparities, a consistent pattern has been reported across multiple states, showing that black Americans comprise a disproportionately greater number of reported COVID-19 cases and deaths compared with other Americans.”

 

Providing people with direction to various aspects of how COVID-19 is affecting the Black community is in part why I see my role as the Director of the Africana Library, and Curator, Africana Collections, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections as so important. I see my role as not only collecting resources about Black folk in Africa and the African Diaspora, but also providing a space where we can have discussions on important topics of the day.

 

For example, Margaret Washington, Marie Underhill Noll Professor of American History at Cornell, wrote an opinion piece for the Cornell Daily Sun, COVID-19 Since 1619. This is an eye-opening essay where Professor Washington connects the George Floyd killing with the historical narrative of racism that Blacks have endured in America for centuries. One of my favorite lines in Professor Washington’s essay is when she made reference to what Malcolm X said to a Black audience, “We did not land on Plymouth Rock … Plymouth Rock landed on us.” In other words, Black folk have been catching hell from the very beginning when their ancestors first arrived on the shores of America. Professor Washington further makes her point on the racist treatment of Blacks by saying:

 

“In Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Thomas Jefferson proclaimed Blacks physically, biologically and intellectually inferior.” She continues and writes, “The Constitution, as the ‘law of the land,’ codified institutional racism and white supremacy. African Americans counted as 3/5 of a person to increase slaveholders’ representation; the Atlantic slave trade continued for another 20 years; federal authority put down enslaved insurrection and returned ‘fugitives;’ the Second Amendment empowered states to create slave patrol militias and permitted individuals to bear arms so slave masters could protect themselves. From the nation’s beginning, seeking Black freedom was a federal crime.”

 

I can almost see Dr. Clarke asking his audience, where do you think the above passage places Blacks on the map of human geography?

 

Over the summer, we lost two giants who lived their lives addressing the ills that Professor Washington wrote about. The two giants are John Lewis and C.T. Vivian. They were most noted for their work during the civil rights movement. This was an era in which they fought for the desegregation of buses and lunch counters, not to mention voting rights for Blacks. An era in which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955, so we could all stand tall. Her mindful act launched a movement in which Blacks demanded to be treated with dignity and respect.

 

For me one of the most impactful parts of my job is creating a space where people can learn about the resources that will teach them different aspects of history as John Henrik Clarke would say. Recently I authored two library guides: Black Lives Matter and How to Be An Antiracist. Hopefully they will help guide people in these ongoing discussions of race, prompted by the national and global outcry that followed the tragic killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. In these times we need the Africana Library more than ever. — Kofi Acree

The John Henrik Clarke Africana Library as an Agent of Change

In January of 1973, the founding director of the Africana Studies and Research Center (ASRC) at Cornell University, Dr. James Turner, wrote an essay titled, “Library in the Life of Black People.” He directly connected the success of an academic institution to the quality of its faculty and library. He wrote, “The library is an indivisible factor in the equation determining the pride, prestige, and success of most colleges and universities in this country.” He understood that the building of a specialized distinct collection concentrating on the history, culture and life-conditions of people of African descent would aid in expanding teaching beyond the Eurocentric model. The Eurocentric model viewed the world from a western perspective and those of African descent were seen as never contributing to world civilization.

So in talking about the building of a specialized distinct Africana-centered library collection, Turner is challenging long-standing misconceptions of Black inferiority and bringing to the table the demands that Blacks made during the civil rights and Black student movements. Those demands included being treated with dignity and a demand for racial justice and equality. Turner understood that the field of Black Studies and its Africana- centered library stood for much more than the collection of resources.

A big part of the library’s mission was to give voice or empowerment to those of African descent, and allow them to curate a collection that was significant to them and their place in world history. This was part of the call of “education for liberation.” In the book Discourse on Africana Studies: James Turner and Paradigms of Knowledge, Rod Daniels wrote, “A central focus of Black Studies was to address the ‘mis-education’ of students of African descent by providing a critical understanding of their history and  culture, an African-centered framework for examining the world, and the knowledge and tools to become change agents for an oppressed people.”

African American journalist Carl Rowan expanded on Daniels’s approach to Black Studies when he captured the role that the library has played throughout time. Rowan wrote: “[The] library is the temple of learning, and learning has liberated more people than all the wars in human history. A Black person who wants to be liberated first needs to get learning. If he does, it will make him a formidable force against a would-be oppressor.” This concept ties directly in to the library being “an agent of change,” or for what many would argue, for “social justice.”

The ongoing vision of the Africana Library is to continue in the rich tradition of Dr. Turner and inspire students, especially Black students, to not only assume professional careers such as the next teachers/professors and research scholars, but be able to speak to the ills of society. An outstanding example is Cornell University/Africana alumna Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, ‘81, a noted law professor and a leading scholar of critical race theory who has gained much recognition in the theory of intersectionality.

As I write this the protests are still going on in the streets of Minneapolis after the recorded lynching of George Floyd at the hands of former Minneapolis police officers Derek Chauvin, Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane. There are calls throughout this country for social justice and police reform. I believe that it is important for libraries to understand the role that they have in the fight for social justice. For example, we can look not only to the mission of the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library, which call for the building of an African and African diaspora collection, but libraries like the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul, Minnesota, who see its mission “to inspire solidarity, advocate for justice and work toward equity for all.” We indeed are “agents of change.”

Sources:
Bobo, Jacqueline, et al. “Introduction.” In The Black Studies Reader. Jacqueline Bobo, Cynthia Hudley, and Claudine Michel, eds. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Daniels, Ron. “Foreword: Reflections on the Life and Legacy of Dr. James Turner.” In Discourse on Africana: James Turner and Paradigms of Knowledge. Scot Brown, ed. New York: Diasporic Africa Press, Inc., 2016.

Shoge Ruth C. “The Library as Place in the Lives of African Americans.” ACRL Eleventh National Conference, April 10-13, 2003, Charlotte, North Carolina. Web

–Kofi Acree

The Sistahs

The Sistahs

Top: Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, Condoleezza Rice, Maxine Waters, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Gwendolyn Brooks

Middle: Sojourner Truth, Madame C. J. Walker, Michelle Obama, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Maya Angelou

Bottom: Toni Morrison, Fanny Lou Hamer, Mae Jemison, Shirley Chisholm, Angela Davis, Harriet Tubman.

In the United States the month of March is recognized as “Women’s History Month.” The establishment of this month dates back to 1978 when a school district in Sonoma, California had a weeklong celebration on the accomplishments of women. In 1981, Congress passed a bill that proclaimed the week of March 7 as “Women’s History Week.” In 1987, after being petitioned by the National Women’s History Project, Congress passed a bill that designated the entire month of March as “Women’s History Month.”

 

In recognition of Women’s History Month the Africana Library would like to highlight the portrait created by African American Ithacan artist, Khalil Bey. In 2014, inspired by the need for some female representation amongst the male portraits on display at Africana Library (John Henrik Clarke and Black cowboys Isom Dart, Nat Love and Bill Pickett), I asked Khalil to depict Black women that made significant contributions to American History. Khalil later told me, that when he began his research, he felt overwhelmed, as there were so many women to choose from. As a sports fan, I liken it to picking your favorite players from a team sport for an all-star game. Khalil ended up choosing 17 prominent women, and called the painting The Sistahs. I have to admit, Khalil picked a winning team.

 

In the painting Khalil has Michelle Obama, the first African American First Lady of the United States, in the center surrounded by a who’s who of women that contributed to politics and the arts. He even has three Cornelians in the painting: Jessie Redmon Fauset, Toni Morrison and Mae Jemison.  Jessie Fauset, known as the “Midwife of the Harlem Renaissance,” was the literary editor for The Crisis, the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Toni Morrison was a Nobel Prize- and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, editor, professor and one of the best writers that America has ever produced. Former astronaut Mae Jemison became the first African American woman in space.

 

Some women in the painting are easy to identify, such as Rosa Parks. Parks is consider the spark that ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott and in some circles, was nicked named the “mother of the Civil Rights Movement.” The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted 13 months was lead by a 26-year-old minister, Martin Luther King, Jr. The boycott led to a United States Supreme Court ruling that stated segregation on public buses is unconstitutional. Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King, Jr., is situated to the left of Parks. Coretta Scott King was dedicated to the civil rights movement and continued to fight for social justice long after MLK’s assassination.

 

Others portrayed in the painting are Condoleezza Rice, the first Black woman to serve as the United States National Security Adviser, as well as the first Black woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of State. Congresswoman Maxine Waters who is to the left of Rice, and is currently serving as the U.S. Representative for California’s 43rd congressional district. Waters is a member of the Democratic Party, is currently in her 15th term in the House. Gwendolyn Brooks rounds out the top row; it is as if she is watching over the other women in the painting. Brooks was a poet, author, and teacher. Her work often dealt with the plight of African Americans in her community. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950, for the book Annie Allen. This made her the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize.

 

Sojourner Truth is the first woman in row two. Truth a former enslaved person from Ulster County, New York, is best known for being an abolitionist whose contemporaries were Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Tubman bookends Truth on the third row. In the words of historian Margaret Washington; “Harriet Tubman was the most daring, legendary, and courageous conductor on the human network of self-freed Blacks called the ‘Underground Railroad.’ A Civil War freedom fighter and woman suffrage advocate, African Americans called Tubman, Moses,’ symbolizing her premier leadership, and ‘Old Chariot,’ a term taken from spirituals she sang to alert the enslaved of her presence.”

 

Madame C. J. Walker who is positioned next to Sojourner Truth in the painting, is known as the first Black woman millionaire in the United States. She made her fortune from hair care products for Black women. Walker is also known as being a philanthropist and a political and social activist. In the same row next to Michelle Obama is Ida B. Wells-Barnett. I have to admit, Wells-Barnett is the person who first came to mind when I charged Khalil with doing the painting.  She has so many accomplishments. Besides being an investigative journalist, educator and activist, she took up the led in the anti-lynching movement in the United States in the 1890s. She was a big inspiration to the NAACP in its fight to end lynching. It amazes me that it has taken almost 130 years since Well-Barnett first took up this fight, for the U.S. government to finally pass an anti-lynching bill in February 2020.

 

The person who rounds out the second row is Maya Angelou. She was an author, actress, screenwriter, dancer, poet and civil rights activist. Her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, stands out as the first nonfiction bestseller by an African American woman. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was first banned in 1996 for its profanity, violence, and sexual content. In the last row is Fannie Lou Hamer who is to the left of Toni Morrison in the painting. A former sharecropper, civil rights activist who is best known for the saying, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” But this active member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was a key leader in the civil rights movement. One of the best examples of her leadership came in 1964 when she took part in the founding of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), becoming vice chairperson and a member of its delegation to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. In the last row Shirley Chisholm sits across from Hamer. Chisholm was a trailblazer in American politics. This Brooklynite was the first Black woman in Congress (1968) and the first woman and Black to seek the nomination for President of the United States from one of the two major political parties (1972). She ran as a Democrat.

 

Angela Davis is the final woman to be highlighted. Biographer Bettina Aptheker writes that “Davis has been internationally recognized as a leader in movements for peace, social justice, national liberation, and women’s equality. A scholar and prolific writer, Davis has published [12] books and scores of essays, commentaries, and reviews. Since the 1970s she has persevered in struggles to free political prisoners and to dismantle what she was the first to call the prison-industrial complex.”

The women depicted in this painting is an example of those who have achieved great things. They serve as an inspiration to us all. Which women would you choose to be recognized?

 

Sources:

History.com, Women’s History Month.

Library of Congress, Women’s History Month.

Washington, Margaret. Harriet Tubman.

Aptheker, Bettina. Angela Davis, Oxford African American Studies Center.

Additional Resources:

Angela Davis Resource Guide

Civil Rights Movement, Women

Edwidge Danticat Resources

Harriet Tubman Library Guide

Toni Morrison: Literary Icon

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela Guide

–Kofi Acree

Black History is More Than a Month

Kofi Acree:

A few years ago, I did a Black History Month presentation for 5 and 12 year old children at the Greater Ithaca Activity Center (GIAC) in Ithaca, N.Y. In part, I wanted to share my passion for history and show the kids how important it is for them to learn about the past. I believe that it is important to establish for young children that people of African descent had a history beyond the slavery experience in the United States. I shared the origins of Black History Month, and showed a trailer to the film, More Than a Month. I also shared with the students the books that interested me when I was their age: Famous American Negroes by Langston Hughes; I Am Third by Gale Sayers; and African Heroes and Heroines by Carter G. Woodson.

Black History Month can be traced back to 1926, when Carter G. Woodson, a Harvard-trained historian and whose parents were enslaved, wanted to set aside a time to honor the achievements of African Americans. Woodson saw a growing number of weeklong celebrations during the early 1900s. He saw “Boy Scout Week,” “Clean-up Week,” “Music Week,” “Education Week,” and “Better Health Week.” He felt that a “Negro History Week” was in order. Woodson was also influenced by Omega Psi Phi, one of the oldest African-American fraternities. The Omegas strongly believed that the culture and heritage of African Americans should be celebrated. He chose the week that included the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (Feb 12) and Frederick Douglass (Feb. 14). The celebration of Negro History Week became so popular in the 1940s that Woodson sold Negro History Week kits, posters, and photos depicting periods of African-American history. By 1976, the year of America’s Bicentennial, Negro History Week had become Black History Month.

As the Africana Librarian, and an overall enthusiast for Black History, I recognize it all year, and encourage others to do the same. To find out more about Black History see these online guides that I created: Ancient African Civilizations, Toni Morrison: Literary Icon, Martin Luther King, Jr., Angela Davis, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Reparations, and Willard Straight Occupation. Other rich materials about people of African descent can be found on the Africana Library web site. Black History is certainly more than a month. I believe that I left the kids at GIAC with some food for thought. They not only asked questions, but eagerly shared what they knew about Black History. One thing that I walked away with that day is that it is paramount to see Black people with dignity and a past that matters.

Resources:

White, Alvin. “Godfather of Black History.” Sepia. vol. 25, no. 2, February 1976, p. 58-66.
Goggin, Jacqueline. Carter G. Woodson: A Life in Black History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.
Goggin, Jacqueline. “Black History Month/Negro History Week.” Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. Edited by Jack Salzman, David Lionel Smith, and Cornel West. New York: Simon & Schuster and Prentice-Hall, 1996. 352-353.
L. D. Reddick, “Twenty-Five Negro History Weeks,” The Negro History Bulletin, volume 13, no. 8, May, 1950, p. 178.