The Library Card, By Richard Wright | (from Black Boy, 1944)

In African American History, Education, Writing on May 8, 2013 at 2:31 pm

I decided to post an essay by one of my favorite author’s (Richard Wright) about the library. I thought this was a great read and believed that others would enjoy it as much as I did. The essay, “The Library Card,” by Richard Wright, was written in 1944 (from Black Boy).

“One morning I arrived early at work and went into the bank lobby where the Negro porter was mopping. I stood at a counter and picked up the Memphis Commercial Appeal and began my free reading of the press. I came finally to the editorial page and saw an article dealing with one H. L. Mencken. I knew by hearsay that he was the editor of the American Mercury,but aside from that I knew nothing about him. The article was a furious denunciation of Mencken, concluding with one, hot, short sentence: Mencken is a fool.” –Richard Wright

I wondered what on earth this Mencken had done to call down upon him the scorn of the South. The only people I had ever heard denounced in the South were Negroes, and this man was not a Negro. Then what ideas did Mencken hold that made a newspaper like the Commercial Appeal castigate him publicly? Undoubtedly he must be advocating ideas that the South did not like. Were there, then, people other than Negroes who criticized the South? I knew that during the Civil War the South had hated northern whites, but I had not encountered such hate during my life. Knowing no more of Mencken than I did at that moment, I felt a vague sympathy for him. Had not the South, which had assigned me the role of a non-man, cast at him its hardest words?

Now, how could I find out about this Mencken? There was a huge library near the riverfront, but I knew that Negroes were not allowed to patronize its shelves any more than they were the parks and playgrounds of the city. I had gone into the library several times to get books for the white men on the job. Which of them would now help me to get books? And how could I read them without causing concern to the white men with whom I worked? I had so far been successful in hiding my thoughts and feelings from them, but I knew that I would create hostility if I went about the business of reading in a clumsy way.

I weighed the personalities of the men on the job. There was Don, a Jew; but I distrusted him. His position was not much better than mine and I knew that he was uneasy and insecure; he had always treated me in an offhand, bantering way that barely concealed his contempt. I was afraid to ask him to help me get books; his frantic desire to demonstrate a racial solidarity with the whites against Negroes might make him betray me.

Then how about the boss? No, he was a Baptist and I had the suspicion that he would not be quite able to comprehend why a black boy would want to read Mencken. There were other white men on the job whose attitudes showed clearly that they were Kluxers or sympathizers, and they were out of the question.

There remained only one man whose attitude did not fit into an anti-Negro category, for I had heard the white men refer to him as a “Pope lover.” He was an Irish Catholic and was hated by the white southerners. I knew that he read books, because I had got him volumes from the library several times. Since he, too, was an object of hatred, I felt that he might refuse me but would hardly betray me. I hesitated, weighing and balancing the imponderable realities.

One morning I paused before the Catholic fellow’s desk.

“I want to ask you a favor,” I whispered to him.

“What is it?”

“I want to read. I can’t get books from the library. I wonder if you’d let me use your card?”

He looked at me suspiciously.

“My card is full most of the time,” he said.

“I see,” I said and waited, posing my question silently.

“You’re not trying to get me into trouble, are you, boy?” He asked, staring at me.

“Oh, no sir.”

“What book do you want?”

“A book by H. L. Mencken.”

“Which one?”

“I don’t know. Has he written more than one?”

“He has written several.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“What makes you want to read Mencken?”

“Oh, I just saw his name in the newspaper,” I said.

“It’s good of you to want to read,” he said. “But you ought to read the right things.”

I said nothing. Would he want to supervise my reading?

“Let me think,” he said. “I’ll figure out something.”

I turned from him and he called me back. He stared at me quizzically.

“Richard, don’t mention this to the other white men,” he said.

“I understand,” I said. “I won’t say a word.”

A few days later he called me to him.

“I’ve got a card in my wife’s name,” he said. “Here’s mine.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Do you think you can manage it?”

“I’ll manage fine,” I said.

“If they suspect you, you’ll get in trouble,” he said.

“I’ll write the same kind of notes to the library that you wrote when you sent me for books,” I told him. “I’ll sign your name.”

He laughed.

“Go ahead. Let me see what you get,” he said.

That afternoon I addressed myself to forging a note. Now, what were the names of books written by H. L. Mencken? I did not know any of them. I finally wrote what I thought would be a foolproof note: Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy–I used the word “nigger” to make the librarian feel that I could not possibly be the author of the note–have some books by H. L. Mencken?  I forged the white man’s name.

I entered the library as I had always done when on errands for whites, but I felt that I would somehow slip up and betray myself. I doffed my hat, stood a respectful distance from the desk, looked as unbookish as possible, and waited for the white patrons to be taken care of. When the desk was clear of people, I still waited. The white librarian looked at me.

“What do you want, boy?”

As though I did not possess the power of speech, I stepped forward and simply handed her the forged note, not parting my lips.

“What books by Mencken does he want?” she asked.

“I don’t know, ma’am,” I said, avoiding her eyes.

“Who gave you this card?”

“Mr. Falk,” I said.

“Where is he?”

“He’s at work, at the M—- Optical Company,” I said. “I’ve been in here for him before.”

“I remember,” the woman said. “But he never wrote notes like this.”

Oh, God, she’s suspicious. Perhaps she would not let me have the books? If she had turned her back at that moment, I would have ducked out the door and never gone back. Then I thought of a bold idea.

“You can call him up, ma’am,” I said, my heart pounding.

“You’re not using these books, are you?” she asked pointedly.

“Oh, no, ma’am. I can’t read.”

“I don’t know what he wants by Mencken,” she said under her breath.

I knew now that I had won; she was thinking of other things and the race question had gone out of her mind. She went to the shelves. Once or twice she looked over her shoulder at me, as though she was still doubtful. Finally she came forward with two books in her hand.

Continue Reading Here

  1. Loves it! Really! Thank you for the enlightenment!

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