This coming November 2016 will mark the second anniversary of the dedication of the historical marker for the Carnegie Branch Library in Savannah, Georgia. Moreover, as it now turns out, that dedication also represents one of the city’s more notable acknowledgements of the life, work, and legacy of James Alan McPherson (September 16, 1943 – July 27, 2016). The iron-lettered text for the historical marker concludes as follows:
“…One of only two Carnegie library projects for African Americans in Georgia, this was the home library to James Alan McPherson, Pulitzer Prize-winning short story writer and essayist and Clarence Thomas, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.”
The story presented below was previously published in my former AXS Entertainment National African Cultural Arts Column. It is shared here in honor of what later this month would have been Mr. McPherson’s 73rd birthday; and, in recognition not only of the role that one particular library played in his life, but in recognition of the immense value libraries around the world continue to contribute to humanity as a whole.
Savannah community marks 100th anniversary of a legacy of knowledge
Community leaders, patrons of the arts, and enthusiastic readers gathered at the historic Carnegie Branch Library in Savannah, Georgia, on November 13, 2014, to commemorate with a new historical marker the legacy established by its African-American founders in 1914.
Among those assembled on the lawn beside the majestic front steps of the library, located at 537 East Henry Street, were: Senator Lester G. Jackson (D-Savannah and Chatham County), cultural arts advocate Dessie Baker, librarian Mark Darby, author and composer Ja A. Jahannes, historian Charles Lwanga Hoskins, Library Board of Trustees Chairman Dr. Daniel Brantley, Georgia Historical Society Executive Director Todd Groce, founder descendant Ursuline Dickey, Dixon Park Neighborhood representative Helen Washington, Library Foundation Director Lester B. Johnson III, Dixon Park Neighborhood representative Helen Washington, Library Foundation Director Lester B. Johnson III, the library’s current branch manager Adriene Tillman, and many others.
In his remarks on the historical significance of the library, Sen. Jackson noted that one of the reasons his father first moved their family many years ago from Statesboro to Savannah was to gain access to the library. They settled in a house only two blocks away: “He said son, this neighborhood will be an investment in your future. It has a library… Every Saturday morning before I could go out to play, I had to visit this structure…”
Sen. Jackson added the following:
“A hundred years ago, 11 men got together and invested in this community’s future by gathering books. And that’s what this marker here stands for today, an investment those men made in the future of not only young people but everyone. It gave them access to knowledge, it gave them access to history, but most importantly it gave them access to the world… where they could come read books, where they could come collect books, where they could come to understand what was [happening] in the world. And that knowledge is still needed today.”
The men to whom he was referring established themselves in 1906 as the Colored Library Association of Savannah. With a grant from American industrialist Andrew Carnegie, the group was able to build the unique facility at a cost of $104,041.78 but drew on its own resources and community support to provide operational funds and actual books. Construction of the facility, which stands as the only recognized example of Prairie Style architecture (generally associated with Frank Lloyd Wright) in Savannah, got underway in early 1914. Dedication observances were held for it in August of the same year and construction was completed in 1915.
Harlem Renaissance Connections
The date of the library’s construction and opening is particularly significant in light of the Harlem Renaissance that would get underway just as World War I drew to a close. Placed in that context, members of the Colored Library Association of Savannah may be rightly viewed as southern counterparts to such historians and bibliophiles as “the father of black history” Carter G. Woodson and scholar Arthur Schomburg. Like New York’s famed Schomburg Center for Black Culture, the Carnegie Branch Library is an exceptional repository of works related to African-American history and culture on local, state, and national levels.
In more recent times, structural damage forced the library to close in 1997. It reopened in August 2004 with a slate of programs that included a lecture and book signing based on Facts on File’s Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. In addition to modern technology resources, the renovated library also featured a new east wing dedicated to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The text of the new historical marker notes the significance of its role in the intellectual development of both Justice Thomas and Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Alan McPherson.
To learn more about the Carnegie Branch Library’s history, it hours or operation, or current programs please call (912) 231-9921 or visit the Live Oaks Public Libraries website.
author of The River of Winged Dreams
and Journey through the Power of the Rainbow: Quotations from a Life Made Out of Poetry
Authors Harper Lee's and Toni Morrison's New Books Likely to Influence Millennials' Dialogues on Race (part 2)
Unlike her fellow author Harper Lee, Toni Morrison has remained astonishingly prolific throughout her literary career. Though mostly celebrated as a creator of highly-inventive and intensely provocative fiction, she is also in fact an author of popular children’s books, intriguing opera librettos, and intellectually-probing nonfiction as well as an editor. Following the announcement of her forthcoming eleventh novel, God Help the Child, the February 9, 2015, edition of The New Yorker Magazine published “New Fiction” by her in form of an excerpt from the novel.
[If you missed the first part of this article and would prefer to start at the beginning please click here]
Although deeply embedded in African-American history, Morrison's writings have always gone beyond standard representations of African Americans as victimized or marginalized individuals drifting along the outskirts of white concerns. She has instead presented them as central cosmic presences wading their way through currents of unique human experience shaped by powerful confluences of historical developments. As an author, Toni Morrison in some important ways is to American fiction what the late W.E.B. Du Bois and Howard Zinn were to American history: a revisionist of themes and texts who expanded narratives on the American story to validate the testimonies of those whose lives and voices had been classified as “minor.”
The Color of a Mother's Pain
The passage from God Help the Child published in The New Yorker focuses on the development of the relationship between a very light-complexioned black woman and a daughter who, unexpectedly and inexplicably, is born with very dark skin. The child’s skin is so dark, in fact, that the mother holds a blanket over her face and then has to resist the urge to kill her. She later instructs her daughter to address her as “Sweetness,” and the daughter herself is given the far less elegant name of “Lula Ann” Bridewell. In addition to suffering painful embarrassment over her daughter’s complexion, Sweetness also fears for her safety in the world:
“With that skin, there was no point in being tough or sassy, even when you were right. Not in a world where you could be sent to a juvenile lockup for talking back or fighting in school, a world where you’d be the last one hired and the first one fired. She didn’t know any of that or how her black skin would scare white people or make them laugh and try to trick her.” (Toni Morrison, from Sweetness as published in The New Yorker)
This predicament allows Morrison to examine the often controversial subject of intra-racial color prejudice among African Americans. Some have theorized that such prejudice has its roots in the internalization of negative images projected by American Whites during slavery––and through mass media in the decades that followed–– onto African Americans. It further intensified into a form of self-hatred frequently reinforced by stereotypes proliferated throughout what passed for popular American culture in the 1900s.
Others contend it is a completely different species of neuroses formed from the triple pressures of social, economic, and political oppression. Either way, intra-racial color prejudice represents yet one more facet of the bizarre negative psychological complexities generated by obsessions with notions of racial superiority in contrast to principles of human diversity.
A Framework for Millennials
Many television viewers were delightfully stunned by Toni Morrison during her appearance on the Stephen Colbert Show last November when she commented candidly on race as a “social construction” from which certain people profited. With those comments, as she has done for her own generation and the generations of American writers who have followed in her footsteps, she gave Millennials a very valuable tool in the form of one model for addressing one of the world’s most persistent problems: racism.
The day after Morrison’s appearance on the late night talk show, readers born long after the publication of her first novel, The Bluest Eye in 1970, and many born not-so-long afterwards, took to social media to express how much they had enjoyed watching her. Many also, however, confessed that they had never read any of her books.
Anyone in need of incentive to get started reading Morrison might consider that, as nearly as anyone can tell her works have been translated into nearly two dozen languages, is taught in schools around the world, and has sold in huge quantities for which there are no precise figures. That kind of achievement––even without mentioning such honors as the Pulitzer Prize, France’s Legion of Honour Award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom–– is its own greatest endorsement.
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.