BODIES OF KNOWLEDGE
Ronald McNair spent most of his life in various states of resistance, struggling against the forms of systemic oppression imposed upon him as a black man growing up in late Jim Crow era South Carolina. Back when he was about eight years old, Ronald visited his local whites-only public library in Lake City, a small town in southern Florence County, desirous of books about math and science. His brother, Carl, later recalled what happened for NPR’s StoryCorps: "So, as he was walking in there, all these folks were staring at him—because they were white folk only—and they were looking at him and saying, you know, 'Who is this Negro?' So, he politely positioned himself in line to check out his books. Well, this old librarian, she says, 'This library is not for coloreds.' He said, 'Well, I would like to check out these books.' She says, 'Young man, if you don't leave this library right now, I'm gonna call the police.' So he just propped himself up on the counter, and sat there, and said, 'I'll wait.’"
As Megan Summers discusses in her new piece, Ronald’s defiance paid off, and after a confrontation with local police, he took the books home. A mere 20 years later, Ronald would be handpicked from a group of physicists by NASA to join the space program. As with many astrophysicists, he also had a talent for music and in 1984 actually brought his saxophone onboard the Space Shuttle and became the first person to play an instrument in space. But little did this future M.I.T. graduate know that with his act of perseverance in that library he was adding to a larger and ongoing American narrative of challenging institutional discriminatory policies against African Americans. So, it’s understandable why public libraries, along with lunch counters and courthouses were often ground zero for demonstrations during the Civil Rights Movement.
Understanding the history of public libraries in America means acknowledging the larger forces that shape us and our relationships to each other. They are woven into the landscapes of towns, villages, counties, parishes, and cities everywhere; they are community centers whose offerings are enormous and constantly evolving. In fact, there are currently more public libraries in America than Starbucks. Every person, whether they realize it or not, passes a library on their way to work or to the park or to the gym. Taxpayer dollars hard at work, at least for some. While some of us may be dismissive of libraries and their centrality to our lives, those without regular access to computers, media, books, social services, and climate-controlled environments utilize libraries to learn, to grow, to feel safe, and, most importantly, for connection to their community. In libraries, people can register to vote, investigate their ancestry, attend lectures, obtain free tickets to local museums, gain technology skills, and raise their children to become avid readers. Just think of how many apps you could delete from your home screen just off this list alone! READ MORE HERE
Alongside transit systems and schools, many public libraries were still segregated deep into the 1960's, though some libraries were opened specifically for black communities, thus solidifying the “separate but equal” creed. But like McNair, African Americans often fought back, holding sit-ins to protest their exclusion. In 1960, eight black students in South Carolina, not a year after McNair’s experience in Lake City, refused to leave the whites only main library in Greenville until they were arrested. One of those students was Jesse Jackson. While a lawsuit was filed against the library that summer, the Mayor and City Council voted to close the library rather than desegregating it. “The efforts made by a few Negroes to use the white library will now deprive white and Negro citizens of the benefit of a library,” the mayor told the Greenville News at the time. But luckily, the district court judge overseeing the case ruled the library had to allow anyone entrance upon reopening. Amidst public pressure, the library reopened within a few weeks as a desegregated space.
Libraries in the North also actively discriminated against African Americans. In a 1934 newspaper article from the Baltimore Afro-American, librarian Augusta Baker recalled the director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library there telling her they were not interested in hiring black people. The article also mentioned the library’s separate bathrooms for “colored” people, installed after complaints from white library users. Historian Cynthia R. Greenlee documented a time in 1945 when New Jersey resident and NAACP member Violet Wallach complained to her local New Jersey chapter about separate, smaller reading rooms for black people at her local library. The NAACP opened an investigation, and library treasurer Harriet Trumaine defended the policy, stating, “We don’t believe in social equality for Negroes. We don’t want our white children associating with them on the same level. The Negroes are a different race. They should be proud of it but keep to themselves.” READ MORE HERE
The importance of these spaces and their key to future opportunity cannot be understated, and though we try to believe we have come along way, baby, today, the majority of public librarians are white, and only a minority are black: 77% as opposed to 7%. Add to this the present statistic that a larger portion of black and Hispanic adults have never visited a public library compared to their white counterparts, and the reality of equitable access comes into focus. To quote Cleveland librarian Stacie Williams, “Neutrality as we use it in libraries leaves people standing at the margins, demanding to be acknowledged as capable and professional, as human, as having histories and lived experiences reflective of the bodies we inhabit. Our bodies, like the bodies of knowledge we provide access to, are not and never were neutral.” Yet, the white-washed history of public libraries persists in many spheres.
Hope ebbs and flows within the present narrative of public libraries. Their benefits are compromised daily not just by greater political powers, but by how those of us with mobility and privilege choose to nourish our social enterprises through participation. At a time when false narratives creep into every aspect of our lives, we must be accountable to the past, and we must engage in conversations that make us uncomfortable. “The road between South Carolina and space flight is not a very simple one, nor is it one filled with guarantees,” Ronald McNair explained at the University of South Carolina commencement ceremony in 1984. “The true courage of space flight is not strapping into one’s seat prior to lift off. It is not sitting aboard six million pounds of fire and thunder as one moves away from the planet. But true courage comes in enduring and persevering and the preparation and believing in oneself.”
Besides just taking his saxophone into space, the multi-talented Ronald McNair worked with his friend, the legendary French composer Jean-Michel Jarre. The two hit it off after Jarre toured NASA in 1985 and eventually they worked together throughout McNair’s grueling training and schedule to develop a piece that would make musical and astronomical history.
McNair once again brought his saxophone with him on the upcoming 1986 Space Shuttle launch and planned to film himself playing his solo in space. Jarre would then use the footage in his Houston concert - he wanted the show to be an experience that transcended Earth. McNair’s solo would have been the first piece of live music ever recorded in space. Tragically, we know this never happened because just 73 seconds after launch, The Challenger exploded, killing the entire crew. After the horrible accident, the idea of the concert felt absurd to Jarre, he explained in an interview, "Suddenly all this just killed me, and I had no more energy. I said, 'just forget it.'"
But Jarre was urged to proceed by other astronauts and McNair’s wife too. When Jarre's album, Rendez-Vous, was released, it included a track called "Ron's Piece," and McNair's actual heartbeat was used as the beat of the piece where his solo was supposed to go. The concert also went on as scheduled. The performance was a large-scale combination of lights, lasers, music, and fireworks. Jarre even got so innovative that he projected images of different icons onto the sky, including the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger.
Fireworks shot off over Houston’s buildings. Lights flashed across skyscrapers as well as the stage. The concert overflowed with people and even stopped traffic on the city’s busy freeways. Though McNair wasn't giving his solo from space, 1.3 million people still checked in to see the concert in his honor.
At the time, the city of Houston was in a deepening rut. Hundreds of jobs had vanished due to flattening oil prices and the housing market was plummeting. The diverse city also faced racial tension that only increased due to the financial collapse of the city. At a time when unification seemed impossible, McNair and Jarre’s music was able to bring people together - the accomplished astronaut was able to instill his hope in people even after his tragic death.