More than books
The 1930s marked a turning point in the American identity. With the WPA and other programs implemented by the Roosevelt administration, a new American would emerge from the tumultuous era of uncertainty. He would be grounded in patriotism, supported by his community, and ready to face the intellectual challenges of a new era. Libraries were one of the central places that this new American would be created. They were places that broadened horizons and introduced new opportunities in all realms of one’s life, so long as that one was white. As we’ve seen, segregated libraries in Northern Virginia were not just different buildings for different races. They were geographies of domination and oppression, where American citizens were robbed of their identity, their security, and their humanity simply because of their race. The message was clear: Black Americans had no identity in society.
Geographic spaces hold unique psychological and imagined meanings to communities based in the social interactions carried out there. These spaces are the marriage of the material, the cultural, the social, and the philosophical, and are therefore exemplary origins to unobscure blackness in the historical record. Only by understanding these spaces as such can we begin to understand the myriad things withheld from black Americans under the guise of segregated libraries, everything from educational resources to their very identity as an individual, as a member of their community, as a patriotic citizen, and as a fully formed individual with inherent humanity. Jim Crow transformed these buildings into symbolic geographies and books into ideological conceptions of humanness.
The lessons here are important. The general definition of space is not necessarily the most accurate. Investigations into the use and perceptions of space in social, political, and cultural contexts will help us better understand their truest nature as public geographies of social engagement. Space can be employed as a means to oppress, but in doing so, oppressors both demonstrate the malleability of geography while simultaneously connecting the interests of those oppressed to the nature of the space itself. Like Tucker, we do not have to see the existence of oppressive geographies as naturally occurring, nor inevitable; rather we can engage them as spaces of opportunity to transform broader socio-political landscapes.
Tucker knew as well as the administrations of libraries across the nation that education is the tool that oppressors fear most. Restricting a community’s access to knowledge and education is restricting their capacity to navigate and translate their collective identity into political and social power, which is precisely why even the space provided to black citizens was insufficient not only in its intellectual materials resources, but also in its capacity to host communal events of a nature similar to those held in white libraries. Knowledge and education informs a people of the literal and potential space that they occupy in history, in culture, and in society. It is the unification of a community with that knowledge that empowers people to enact change and pursue progress.
As the distance between ourselves and our past grows, so too does the distance between the image in the history book and our capacity to comprehend the social context that produced it. However, the importance of that context is what we’ve uncovered here; the pictures show the material landscape of segregated buildings, but it is the social and ideological components of geography that take us beyond the cartography. Today, America stands at a crossroads. Politicians are waging war in classrooms where teachers dare to identify black history as American history. Courtrooms are stripping minorities of their rights at disproportionately higher rates than their white counterparts. And libraries are once again a place for politicians to restrict knowledge through book bans and ostracize the LGBTQ community through the Drag Queen story hour culture wars. We can’t afford to miss the connections between geographies, cultures, communities, and political power. Understanding their symbiotic relationship empowers us to leave oppressive forces with no venue to prosper within, and no means of escaping historical accountability.