Years ago, I traveled to my hometown’s public library to check out some books by Maya Angelou. Imagine my surprise when I discovered there weren’t any books by Angelou, or Alice Walker, or the prolific writer, Langston Hughes.
Granted, this was some time ago but it was a sad day of grappling with the discovery that I’d rather not have made — black literature was absent from that library.
Should I have been surprised?
Probably not — I grew up in a town where, well into my teenage years, there was a “White’s Only” swimming pool. The pool, it seems, routed the law by being situated on private property, therefore the owners could put up any sign they saw fit.
Today, I still have memories of riding by that sign five days a week (each school day) and the pit in my stomach from realizing “White’s Only,” meant it was not open to me. It seemed then especially torturous because I so loved to swim.
Looking back, in all fairness, I’m sure those owners were not a complete representation of my hometown, any more than that library was a representation of all county libraries.
I left the library angry, disturbed by the exclusion. But, after sulking, I returned to the place where I knew I would fill the void — North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. There, I purchased every book the weekly funds sent by my mother would allow.
By the time I graduated, I had read the best of Countee Cullen, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Zora Neal Hurston, Qwendolyn Brooks, Claude McKay, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and countless other gifted artists.
The books solidified an identity that a “White’s Only” swimming pool couldn’t strip, an education that ignorance couldn’t blemish.
In essence, my identity wasn’t defined by the pride in those books — it was reaffirmed.
When I read Baldwin’s social struggle to find a rightful place in society in the “The Price of the Ticket” or the love story of “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” when I learned in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” that a decision made in youth doesn’t smother the fire that a dream carries, but fans its flames, then I realized that tomorrow always brings its own promise. The words of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Negro National Anthem, written by poet and political activist James Weldon Johnson, color some of what it means to keep the faith, to hope for a better tomorrow.