In the past couple of weeks I have ready many books and it has been a gift to have the time to do so. Most of them were books I had put on hold at the library over the summer and delayed getting so I remembered very little about why I had wanted to read them or who had recommended them. The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray was definitely in that category.
The book is a fictionalized account of the life of Belle da Costa Greene (born Belle Marion Greener). Belle was the personal librarian to J. P. Morgan in the first part of the 1900s. As I began the book I was confused about the fiction label on it and wondered what was historical fact and what was fictionalized. Belle was a Black woman who passed as white for her adult life so, not surprisingly, she did not keep letters or records that might have given her away, even after her death. I paused in my reading, early on, and skipped to the Historical Note at the end of the book, which was helpful in giving me some insight. I continued reading, enthralled by Belle’s story.
At some point, about mid-way through the book I had more questions about the process these two authors had taken to tell this story. So I again paused and skipped to the back, this time to read the Author’s Notes and Acknowledgments from each of them.
In the Author’s Notes, both authors (one white and one Black) reflect on how the pandemic and the racial turmoil throughout the country impacted their revisions of this book. From Victoria Christopher Murray’s Author’s Note:
We created a safe space between us as we discussed the history of Black America, the history of white America, and the hope that one day these two Americas would converge into one.
All of those thoughts, all of those emotions, spilled into Belle’s story because so much of what we were experiencing in our society as we wrote was what Belle wanted to avoid by passing as white more than one hundred years ago. She didn’t want the color of her skin to be used as a weapon against her, an excuse to keep her relegated to the lowest jobs, the worst neighborhoods, with little possibility for a better life.
That phrase, “All of those thoughts, all of those emotions, spilled into Belle’s story” made me stop immediately. That recognition that what is happening to us and to the world around us impacts our thoughts and our actions seems so obvious while also seemingly not understood in our society.
Many people, I think, would not have noticed how their work was being shaped by outside forces in this way. Too often we see aspects of our lives and aspects of our world as residing in distinct compartments, separate from one another, in isolation. It seems so clear to me that this is not possible. That our lives and our world are deeply intertwined and connected and all aspects impact each other.
It seems equally clear to me that we, as a society, do not (or will not) recognize this, for if we did, we would have to face many things that make us uncomfortable. Recognizing how connected laws, banking systems, school rules, societal norms, and more are to the beliefs and actions of ourselves and others would force us to see how deeply white supremacy (and other biases and supremacies) are embedded in our country. We prefer to believe that laws, banking systems, school rules, societal norms, and more work like impartial algorithms (an oxymoron, but hopefully the point is clear) completely removed from any human bias.
I’m coming to believe that unless we are willing to see these connections, we will never be able to make significant change.