Librarianship as Plantation
I was up late one night contemplating slavery (as one does, especially as a Black American), and it hit me:
The library profession is a plantation.
At the top, we have the white people, the masters and missuses, who own the profession like the landowners of old. These white, middle- and upper-class “gentry” stand at the top of the profession with a sense of ownership and entitlement that is deeply rooted in tradition, history, and privilege. No more how many of us “others” come in (people of color, poor people, both white and of color, etc.), the masters and missuses own and run this field we call our professional home.
Not unintentionally, there’s a gender element to this top echelon, too. The master is the ultimate owner of the domain, even when he may not be in the numerical majority—just as white cis-men dominate the library and archival profession, in privilege, pay, power, and prestige, regardless of the feminization of the field.
Now well below the masters and missuses, there are those of us who have been fortunate and privileged enough to earn the professional degree and who have been allowed (not welcomed, mind you, but allowed) to serve in the manor house of the profession. We are the “house Negros”; we may advance fairly far and take on significant responsibility for the management of the manor; we have relatively close relationships with the masters and missuses; we’ve learned to assimilate enough to be allowed into the mastwrs’ and missuses’ rarefied space…And yet, should we ever attempt to see ourselves as equal to the owners of the plantation, we are very quickly put in our place. We are reminded that we don’t truly belong in the manor as other than “the help,” meant to serve the masters’ and missuses’ agenda for lip service diversity and feel-good neoliberal multiculturalism. But we aren’t meant to bring our true selves, our perspectives, our experiences, our feelings, and certainly not our critiques, into the sacred space of the owners’ house. And many of us often find our invitations to enter and serve are temporary and precarious: they’re happy to have us in a “special program” for a year or two, but we’re never meant to stay.
That’s bad enough, but this analogy is far from done. Outside the house is a massive complex of “field Negros” and “poor white trash,” on whose backs and labors the day-to-day work of the plantation progresses and flourishes. These folks are euphemistically termed “paraprofessionals,” while their time and experience in the profession is unerringly undervalued and unrecognized. Never are they welcome to enter the manor house: their role is to serve out in the fields of the field, their labor and experience kept at a careful distance from the tender sensibilities of the elite. And for those who wish to advance beyond their assigned “station”? Forget it. Again, one finds oneself quickly put back in one’s place.
Meanwhile, the lovely, lily-white, young ladies and gentlemen from neighboring plantations (other disciplines), with all the class and pedigree that is valued in our own manor (read: advanced degrees in those other fields), are welcome to move right into the “big house,” to learn and grow under the careful wings of the masters and missuses. These eligible gentlefolk leapfrog right over the folks in the field, the folks working in the house, to fast track on the path of future master- and missus-hood, thereby guaranteeing the continuation of the privileged and privileging status quo.
Yes, librarianship is a plantation. And if we truly value equity and inclusion—if we truly wish to change the literal face of this profession—then we need to conscious and intentionally let go of this plantation mentality.
I want to extend a gracias de mi corazón to D.M. for helping me think through this blog post and for offering me una amistad that truly gives me life.
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