Mama. Daddy. Aunt Doll. Granny. Muz. Big. Aunt Pearl. Sutta. All my ancestors, all the way back, have always told me, “Don’t you never sign NOTHING a white man gives you without reading it first.” As a Black woman, I hold this advice dear. As a lawyer, I hold this advice dear. Before the first of the six figures of my law school loans hit my Sallie Mae account, I knew this basic tenet of legal practice.
But I didn’t do it. I slipped one time. And now this.
I’m on ALA Council. It’s a pain and a lot of work, but I do it anyway because the American Library Association is a big opaque beast (though one that has shown it doesn’t care much about the marginalized) and those of us with anti-oppression principles and financial privilege need to do what we can. When the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom, which is led by a privileged white man, sent a draft of this interpretation out around May, I read it carefully and commented. I was frustrated that they were doing it. I knew it grew from misguided interpretations of the tiresome “Nazis in the library” question. The endless debate about free speech that is really by and for and about straight, cis, Christian, white men. But I was heartened to see comments and edits incorporated that seemed a reasonable (if not altogether desirable) compromise that most of us could live with.
The statement I read and commented on, all the way up until ALA Annual in late June, had no specific mention of hate speech or hate groups. It just reiterated that generally people can’t be turned away from public library spaces for their beliefs. And there was at least one line about none of this having anything to do with regulating behavior to maintain safety. I figured it was the best we could do. And I trusted that the document with the final resolved comments and edits would be the document I’d vote on during the hectic frenzy that is ALA Annual. I thought I’d done justice to my office as an ALA Councillor and to my status as an ALA member who cares about anti-oppression and who knows libraries are not now and never have been neutral. I thought I could trust my colleagues in the ALA OIF, though led by a privileged white man, to be upfront and honest and not make any additional changes to the document that had been vetted and commented and edited by the membership for close to two months. I thought that, at the very least, last minute changes wouldn’t take place during a historically poorly attended and poorly advertised side session of Council. I thought any changes that did take place would be highlighted right before the vote and opened for discussion as is usually the process. In short, I thought I could vote on the document during the ALA Council Session, which always runs at a frenetic pace, without having to re-read it.
I was wrong.
Oh, ancestors, I should have heeded your time-honored advice.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t take the time—even spoken up to stop Council proceedings (which we totally can do)—to re-read this document and notice the change. I’m sorry that I voted for a document (essentially signed my name to a document) that I wholeheartedly do not support and cannot endorse. I’m sorry that library workers, whether they’re ALA members or not, who count on me to represent them were failed in this way. I’m sorry I didn’t listen to my ancestors.
And I’m angry. I’m angry this new document was, I’m convinced, deliberately slipped past me and others who would have vehemently opposed it beforehand. I’m angry that my fellow socially conscious, anti-oppression Councillors—folks who are conscientious and thoughtful and who really care about this work—have been bending over backward to take responsibility and apologize and make things right while the bad-faith actors have glibly dismissed the concerns of their colleagues. I’m angry that other socially conscious, anti-oppression library workers who have already put in plenty of labor in this profession have had to step up to mobilize a response. I’m angry that it is again and always the women of color and white women, queer folks, non-binary folks, disabled folks stepping up to save this profession from itself.
During this same ALA Annual, ALA Council voted to pass a resolution honoring the African-Americans who fought against the segregation of public libraries during Jim Crow. Like the First Amendment guarantee of free speech, Jim Crow was also THE LAW. But these brave librarians put their bodies, lives, and livelihoods on the the line to fight for what they knew was right, regardless of what an unjust law said.
Though that’s all moot, because it is my expert legal opinion that ALA OIF purposefully mis- and over-interprets the law surrounding free speech. I just point it out because it is so typical of the hypocritical whiteness of the library profession.
Anyway, for those of you who want to help do something, several of our amazing colleagues have put together letter templates. Please continue to write and call. The folks of privilege and power in our profession have been trying to dismiss our response as “a few posts on Facebook,” but we won’t let them ignore us.
And as for me, I’ll know better than to trust my so-called colleagues over my ancestral wisdom. As Big always said, “Well, bought sense is better than told.”