Thursday, November 30, 2006

Richard Wright and the Library Card

by William Miller, illustrated by Gregory Christie.

This is the fictionalized telling of part of the life of Richard Wright. Miller bases it on a scene from Wright's autobiography Black Boy, published in 1945. It is a story of strength and courage and heroism.

“Richard Wright loved the sound of words.”
This is the opening line of the story of his childhood in the segregated South of the 1920s. His family is poor. His mother tells him stories of living on the farm. His grandfather tells stories of fighting in the Civil War after he ran away from his master. They move often, looking for work. Richard didn’t go to school but his mother taught him to read from the funny papers. He couldn’t go to the library because Blacks weren’t permitted in the public libraries.

When he reached adulthood he traveled to Memphis and got a job in an optician’s office, sweeping the floor. He scrapes along eating beans out of a can, but the real hunger is for words.
“There were thousands of books in the public library, but only white people could get a card, could take them out”.
Richard finds a friend working in the office, a white man that is willing to help him check books out of the library. They pretend the books are for the white friend, Jim. They write a note giving Richard permission to get books out on Jim’s library card. When he walks in the library he is terrified and all the white people glare at him.
“Are you sure these books aren’t for you?” the librarian asked in a loud voice when he went to check them out. “No ma’am,” he said. “These books aren’t for me. Heck, I can’t even read.” The librarian laughed out loud and stamped his books. Richard heard the other people laugh as he walked out the door.”

For older elementary or middle school students this book will open dynamic and often difficult discussions. Use it to teach the Quaker testimonies (SPICES) of equality and integrity.


Susan said...

I've not read it but the book sounds heartbreaking, Cloudscome. Such a sad, sad, sad part of our country's history.

Have you read Wilma Unlimited, by Kathleen Krull? It's a biography of the great track star Wilma Rudolph. I love that book. It's very inspiring. said...

I didn't know that only white people were allowed to borrow books, isn't that horrible.

Anonymous said...

I know Richard Wright's Black Boy VERY well because I have taught it four terms (twice in discussion sections, twice in my own class) in this class called Spiritual Autobiography. I hear you when you say you can't bear to read this book to any child, much less your sons. If it's already hard to tell our children about the sad things that happen in this world, telling them these things that happened to their own kin is even harder.

cloudscome said...

That is really interesting Lilian. I would love to chat with you about Black Boy and your teaching sometime. The class sounds fascinating.

nestor ortiz said...

i have a questions for those who have read the book. What was the position of the white people at that time?

Andromeda Jazmon said...

Nestor, in the south at that time Blacks were not permitted to use the library. Many white people probably thought that was appropriate. Some white people thought that was unethical and wrong, and worked against the segregation laws. Wright had a white friend who helped him take books out of the library. So it's a mixed bag.