Back in January, I was doing a kid’s program and one of the parents asked me if I was doing anything for Black History Month in February. Truthfully, I had thought about it and was still on the fence. On one hand, my libraries don’t have very ethnically diverse patrons and the communities they’re in don’t have a large Black population. I’m also strapped with a ton of program requirements as is, so I don’t often offer programs where I wonder over how popular it may be. I told her I was thinking about it and still deciding “if enough people would be interested.” As soon as the words slipped out of my mouth, though, I literally sucked my lips back into my face because I knew right away that it was a terrible reason to not offer a quality program on something that’s very important to remember, no matter your race. So I apologized and said, “You know what? Yes, I will. It’s something I think everyone should care about, so I’ll give it a try.” She gave me her number and asked me to call her when I had some details.
Racial tensions in my community are not great, but it’s all behind the scenes. In my first month of working at my primary branch, I was approached by a prominent figure in the town’s local government after a storytime one day. He said, “There sure are a lot of Mexicans here [referring to the small children who were helping me clean up].” I said, “I’m pretty sure these kids are American.” Either he didn’t understand that was my code for “I don’t want to talk about this” or he didn’t care, because he went on anyway, saying, “doing your job is all well and good as long as you remember who your friends are and that we’re strong.” My mind was blown. I don’t think I said anything because I didn’t know what to say.
And there have been lots of smaller moments when people have complained that a patron of a different race is “being too loud” or doing something they deem suspicious. In talking to school librarians in my area, I’ve also heard stories of children who refuse to read books about “Mexicans” or “Chinese.” So, I admit that while I love to add diverse books to the collection, sometimes offering a more ethnically-centered program feels uncomfortable to me. It takes me a step beyond offering the gateway to a new perspective into a position of facilitating going through that gateway.
That being said, I don’t want to be the kind of librarian who doesn’t facilitate hard conversations because I’m worried that someone won’t like it or no one will participate. I want there to be opportunities for families to grow together and share in talking about real issues in a place of safety and support.
So I planned this program for a Saturday as a way of dipping my toes into the issue. Saturdays are great for working families, but because we tend to have lower numbers, I tend to keep Saturday programs fairly simple. That worked well in planning this program because I wanted most of the interaction to take place between the adults and the kids. Parents could decide how they wanted to discuss issues of slavery with me just providing the set-up to do it.
In case you haven’t heard about this, freedom quilts were made by slaves as a code to guide others to freedom. You can find pictures and translations of the codes just by doing some googling, and there are several wonderful picture books on the subject. Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt is very popular, but I went with two others.
My plan was to read a book or two about the quilts and the journeys of slaves to freedom and then have kids create their own quilt square patterned after one of the codes.
On the day of, my teammate was too sick to come into work, so I was covering the branch by myself. This meant I couldn’t be as involved as I wanted to be, but I still had time to set up the activity. I didn’t have any children come just for the program, but there were a few kids in the library at the time who really wanted to learn about it (no, really!). Because it was quiet in the library, I gathered them around the storytime mat and read The Patchwork Path by Bettye Stroud. I liked this story because it had a code on each page and the story flowed through following the codes. It was great for the ages I had, too, which were 7-10ish. I didn’t read it word for word to save me some time, but I described what the code meant and what was happening on each page. As I went, I asked them questions about how they would feel if it was them. How would they feel if their sister or mom was taken away forever? What if they had to walk every day for months and months? What would it be like to have no food to eat or to be afraid when they went to sleep? And despite how serious the questions sound, we managed to keep it fairly light. They were really into talking through the scenarios and asked lots of questions like, “What if the geese they were following were going the wrong way?”
When we were done with the book, I showed them the table where they could choose from colored packs of squares to make their own coded quilt square. They collected some colors, put them on a plate, and took them over to the other station.
On a long row of tables, I’d laid out big printed codes with their translations underneath. I told them they could make as many as they wanted on big squares of scrapbook paper. They spent about 30 minutes doing this and one girl came away with mini versions of all of the codes on one square. I was worried they would get bored without me interacting with them and doing the craft with them, but they seemed to like doing it together. I was a little disappointed that parents didn’t stick around to talk about the book and its history.
But what I loved about this program was that it taught me to have a little more faith in children. When I approached the kids in the library, they perked right up when I told them they could learn about the underground railroad. “I want to do that!” they said. And *whispering* they were white. 😉
So despite the very small number, I was so glad I offered it. I felt amazing after talking with the kids about what the girl in the book went through, because I thought the kids’ desire to think about and understand that struggle was…beautiful.