On a recent Saturday afternoon I visited César E. Chávez Library in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland. The library, a bright and inviting space, was bustling: kids of all hues loading up on books to read over the summer break; other kids hovering over chess boards or computer terminals. Downstairs, in the lobby, the visitor learned that the scene was in danger. The walls were plastered with the kids’ hand-drawn pleas to their elders to keep their oasis alive:
Seeing the signs brought back to mind a passage from Second Wind, the memoirs of Bill Russell, the Hall of Fame center for the Boston Celtics, who moved to Oakland from Louisiana as a young child. Soon afterward, his mother died, and Russell recounts how, feeling empty and abandoned, he turned to books:
During this time of withdrawal in junior high I had my own private world, and my most prized possession was my library card from the Oakland Public Library. I went there almost every day, and it was not long after my thirteenth birthday when I read two passages that focused the grief I felt over my mother’s death and the forces that I’ve had to contend with ever since. The first passage was in a book on early American history. I was breezing along through a chapter on the American Revolution when I did a double take on one sentence. It was as if somebody had stuck a foot out there on the page and tripped my mind as it went by. I looked again, and this sentence jumped out at me: Despite the hardships they suffered, most slaves enjoyed a higher standard of living and a better life in America than they had in their primitive African homeland.
I had to get up and walk out of the library. For weeks afterward I went around in a fog. The sentence stunned me. There it was, written plainly, that people were better off here as slaves than they had been as free people at home. I couldn’t believe anyone had the nerve to say something like that, especially in a history book. My brother and I had always had a special reverence for history books; if something was written down in one, we believed it meant you could rely on it without question. History was the final referee of what was true. We had one in the house, and we used to settle arguments by saying, “Let’s look it up in the book.” And now, here in a history book was an attack on my very essence as a person.
That day in the library is still vivid to me. I remember that I was sitting at a long table, with my right forearm across the top of the open book and my left forefinger running down the page, the way I used to read. I remember being so taken aback by the sentence that I couldn’t swallow. I thought of “darkest Africa” pretty much the way young white boys must’ve thought of it, as a place where Tarzan ran around among animals and witch doctors. I didn’t know or care what slavery or Africa was really like, but I was repulsed by the idea that life could be better without freedom. To me, being a slave meant you had to buckle under.
As far as I can remember, this was the first time I was ever enraged. I’ve been scared before, like once when a white man chased me across the field in Louisiana threatening to “hang” me for throwing a pebble at his car. I also had been afraid or hurt when my mother died. But I hadn’t been angry, because such occasions were too big and I was too small. They were simply things I discovered as the world revealed itself to me—no different from discovering comic books, schoolrooms or crocodiles, except that they hurt. But there in the library, with another hurt, it was if I could say no. For the first time I felt grounded in anger, and it would last for years to come.
But Russell didn’t just discover anger at the library. He also found, in reading about Henri Christophe, one of the leaders of the slave revolt that made Haiti an independent country, a sense of dignity and power that transcended race.
As a thirteen-year-old kid in the Oakland Public Library, I never dreamed, of course, that I would ever see the Citadel [the fortress Christophe built]. But at a time in my life when I was meek and shy, I would thrill every time I read about how Christophe outfoxed another general, or how he drove people to accomplish the impossible. Part of me identified with him even after I grew old enough to be revolted by his cruelty and tyranny over his own people. I know better than to admire him, but part of me still does so.
Henri Christophe was my first hero after my mother. To me, he was just the opposite of the slave: he would not be one. He was indomitable. I think his life brought home to me for the first time that being black was not just a limiting feeling.
Just imagine. After ten years of the Great Depression and four years of total war, with rationing of meat and gasoline and top marginal income tax rates of 90 percent, that California still felt it could afford a place where a skinny black kid just out of Louisiana could read his way into the world and find his way from loss and anger to pride and dignity.
Maybe the kids at César Chávez Library can find a time machine to take them back there.