Recently, I was watching The Price of the Ticket with my high school students. This documentary chronicles the life of James Baldwin and his journey from growing up in poverty in 1920s and 1930s Harlem to becoming one of the most provocative and prolific writers in American literary history.
If you haven’t read James Baldwin’s writing, find yourself a copy of Go Tell It On the Mountain, Another Country, Giovanni’s Room, The Fire Next Time (essays), or his short story “Sonny’s Blues.” What’s amazing about Baldwin’s oevre is that it is comprised of a variety of genres, it represents Baldwin’s constantly developing voice, and it reflects so poignantly on race, class, sexuality, spirituality, and the landscape of the human heart.
What stayed with me in this my third viewing of The Price of the Ticket were Baldwin’s memories of his visits to the Harlem Public Library. He reflected on his daily visits to the library, where he read every book in the library stacks. It was the only place where he had open access to books. Even at school his access to books was limited because there weren’t enough books for all the students in his local public school. At the library, he read and explored. He imaginatively and cognitively traveled. He questioned and dreamed. He planned to become a writer. He developed an understanding of the importance of words. Of opportunity.
I left the viewing with a heavy heart, wondering about children who live now in or near poverty, those who have limited access to books. Those around whom too many public libraries are closing.
Library closings are happening across the country — in places like New York City, Miami, Chicago, and in my current hometown of Trenton, New Jersey. In 2010, the City of Trenton closed 4 of its 5 public libraries. This in a city where nearly 40% of residents make between $10,000 and $25,000 a year; where half of single mothers in Trenton are under 18 years old; where there are 13,000 students in Trenton, but 1400 dropped out of the class of 2010; and, where students living in poverty are 3 times as likely to drop out when compared to peers in affluent neighborhoods.
Public libraries provide citizens access to information and, therefore, access to opportunity. Andrew Carnegie saw public libraries as informational “cradles of democracy…where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.” Public libraries, I think, are especially important in places where the quality of public schools is low, where unemployment is high, and where the bookstore/cafe revolution has not been televised.
Where will our 21st century James Baldwins read? Where will they gain access to literature, the internet, to free literacy and tutoring programs that attempt to address the immense educational debt in this country? Where will they develop a love and excitement for reading? A mind for the possible?
What is the state of public libraries where you live?