Finding Langston, by Lesa Cline-Ransome
From Finding Langston:
I go back to the shelf and back to the book with the words from my heart. I take it from the shelf, looking around to make sure it’s okay. I sit at one of the empty tables close to the window and open the book.
Every time I read that phrase—the book with the words from my heart—I feel so seen that it feels like someone has punched me in the chest. In a good way.
Shortly after the death of his mother, eleven-year-old Langston’s father packed them both up and moved them from Alabama to Chicago’s Bronzeville district.
On top of his grief—and the isolation that grief brings when two grieving people can’t or won’t talk about the person they’re both missing so, so much—Langston is dealing with new neighbors and with living in the city after growing up in a rural area; he’s dealing with a new school and with classmates who bully and mock him for his “country” clothes and accent; he’s dealing with missing not just his mother, but the extended family that he and his father left behind in Alabama.
Then he discovers the George Cleveland Hall Library.
And he discovers that the George Cleveland Hall Library isn’t just integrated, it’s named for a Black man who served on the library’s Board, and it’s decorated with framed pictures of local Black authors. And young Langston is understandably surprised, given that it’s 1946 and he’s a Black child from the South.
In the George Cleveland Hall Library, he discovers the work of Langston Hughes.
And in the work of Langston Hughes, he finds understanding, and he finds comfort. He sees himself—his name, sure, but also his particular journey, physical and emotional—in Hughes’ poetry. And through Hughes’ poems, he begins to unsnarl and understand the complex tangle in his own heart.
Finding Langston is a super-short—only about 100 pages—super-beautiful book. It’s very much about a specific child in a specific time, about grief and loneliness and the difficulty of making friends in a new, unfamiliar place, but it’s also very much about the power of representation. It’s about the power of finding yourself in a book, both in terms of experience and identity; about how seeing yourself in media can be both grounding and empowering; about the importance of seeing people who look like you in framed pictures on the wall—about how all of those things make you feel like you’re seen, like you’re understood, like you belong, and like someday maybe a picture of your face can be in one of those frames.
I’d absolutely recommend it to anyone who reads and loves middle grade historicals, but I’d particularly recommend it to other librarians—and even more particularly, to other white librarians. The thread about the George Cleveland Hall Library touches directly on the history of segregation in libraries, and that’s something that I think gets glossed over a whole lot in discussions of the history of our profession.
Cline-Ransome gives us a bit more information in her Author’s Note:
Chances are, Langston would not have been able to visit a library in rural Alabama in the 1940s. Not only were libraries racially segregated, but of all the libraries in the state of Alabama, fewer than one-third were available to black residents.
Which, of course, sent me off down the Google rabbit hole about the history of segregation in libraries—and if I’m reading this right, the American Library Association only just apologized last year for passively and actively participating in racial segregation.
It’s not only a hugely important part of our profession’s history, but it’s also a good reminder that the idea of libraries as a “neutral space” is nonsense. My guess is that a whole lot—probably the majority—of the libraries and white librarians and white administrators who participated in racial segregation used the “libraries as neutral ground” argument as reasoning to NOT push back, because then they’d have been “taking a side.”
Which, again: nonsense. Doing nothing, saying nothing—and in the cases of the actual segregated libraries, actively working to uphold and enforce unjust and immoral rules—is absolutely taking a side.
A few links:
At American Libraries: ALA Honors African Americans Who Fought Library Segregation.
At American Libraries: Timeline in Library Development for African Americans.
At American Libraries: Desegregating Libraries in the American South.
At ProQuest: The Hidden History of Segregation in Libraries.
At the Digital Public Library of America: A History of US Public Libraries: Segregated Libraries.