- The Library and the ugly truthby lancellot
This work has reached the exceptional level
How both can save you
The Library and the ugly truth by lancellot
Non-Fiction Writing Contest contest entry

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of language.
Today, when I turn on the local news or read headlines in the paper of 700 homicides in Chicago, I don’t cry, I don’t sigh, and I feel no sadness. I simply scan the article hoping for truth, but all the while knowing scant truth will be found. 

You see, if there is one thing this Chicago native has learned above all else, it is that there is no greater threat, no greater fear, than the honest truth.  

I first discovered this fact as a small boy, when every Friday I’d watch my father come home from work, shower and dress in his finest.

He would then announce, “I’m going out to play cards. I’ll be right back.”

No one would say anything, not me or my older brother. We knew this was his standard lie. We knew he was going to see a woman. The worst part was, my mother knew it too, though for years she pretended she didn’t. My mother was so good at avoiding the ugly truth that once my father brought me along to his woman’s house. There my father actually took a picture of me with his mistress hugging me. When my mother saw the picture, she calmly took a pair of scissors, cut the mistress out of the picture and then placed the remaining image of me in the family photo album. For years she claimed not to know how or where that cut-up picture of me came from.

The point is, the more my mother denied what was going on, the more my father cheated. He went from being gone on Friday nights to being gone for the weekend, then months and then years at a time.

I watched my mother pretend not to know anything. She would simply retreat into her Bible searching for a greater truth I suppose. When my father grew bored, tired, or guilty and returned, my mother would open the door and let him in. Actually, she opened more than just the door, as over the years she gave birth to three more kids from my father before getting her tubes tied.

Not surprising, being mostly a single mother, without a high school diploma and with five kids, we sank deeper and deeper into poverty. Because of my mother’s lack of education the only work she believed she could do was to clean white folk houses. That is how she and my grandmother referred to it.

This was back in the 70’s and 80’s before Molly Maids, when those who didn’t have a live-in maid hired them to clean and wash clothes several times a week.

Sometimes, depending if my older brother was in jail or at home, I would go with my mother to clean houses on the weekends. And, in almost every house we went to, in the suburbs, there were tons of books and huge book shelves covering entire walls.

Since I was a quiet kid with big brown eyes and big cheeks the owners took a liking to me. While my mother cleaned, they would talk to me, give me their old books, clothes, or let me play their pianos. Soon, I could play simple songs, read music, and of course I became a voracious reader. I didn’t fear the white man or the white woman. To me they were normal people who did everything I did. They just had more money, better homes and degrees on their walls. When I would ask how they got all that stuff, many would tell me where they went to school and what they did for a living. And since we were cleaning their houses and not the other way around, I had no reason not to believe them.

Now, you’re probably wondering, what does that long walk down memory lane have to do with the library or the truth. I’m getting to that.

Watching my mother work on her hands and knees, reading all those books, and seeing how the other half lived stimulated my young mind. It did something else too; I began to pick up mannerisms from the people I was exposed to.  My language changed, my hobbies changed, my expectations for my future grew. You see, I believed those nice white folk were telling me the truth about how they became wealthy. I believed them when they told me I could do it too. Why not, except for a permanent tan, they were just like us?

So it was that when I began high school on the west side of Chicago, I was different from my peers, and they noticed… oh did they ever notice. Young black males were expected to join a gang. I declined. Young black males played basketball. I preferred the piano. Black people didn’t like white people. I liked them just fine. And then I committed the ultimate sin. Black males weren’t supposed to do well in school. I excelled.

I excelled so much the other black kids said I acted white. The thugs assumed I had a white brain, and they wanted to see it; preferably splattered all over the ground.

One day, fists and shoes were slamming into my head, face, and body. The sweet and salty taste of my own blood was heavy on my tongue. The sounds of thuds and laughter echoed through the ringing in my ears.

Then I heard her.

“Get off that child. What the hell is wrong with yawl?   Like a pack of animals. Stop it, stop it!” It was my angel, the head Librarian, Miss Sheila marshall.

I wasn’t the fastest teen, but when properly motivated I could motor. So, it took the angry mob a few blocks to catch me after school let out; lucky for me, they caught me in front of the Austin Community Public Library.

Miss Marshall dragged me into the Library; I was very thin back then and didn’t weigh much, and that’s when I noticed a strange thing. The thugs didn’t follow. They would chase me through school, into and out of stores, and up the stairs of my apartment building, but for some unknown reason they stopped at the Library doors.

Today, I know of a sort of racist quote. It goes like this: If you want to hide something, so niggas won’t find it, hide it in a book.

I call that quote sort of racist because experience, past and present, has taught me, although ugly, there is a lot of truth in that quote.

Don’t agree? Let me ask you.  These past years we’ve heard countless news stories of thugs getting shot on porches, on buses, on basketball courts, flash mobs in malls, in schools, in pools, on every street corner in the hood and even in parks and beaches. We've heard of police shootings, jusitified and unjustified.  Have you ever in your life heard of a thug or anyone being beaten, shot, or attacked in a public library? During a riot in any city have you ever seen a book store looted?  I’ll wait while you google.

That is what I mean by the ugly truth.

For the rest of my high school career, during the school year, I would find peace and refuge in the library. I would spend the days studying or reading and in the summers… working in the library. You may think I was trapped, but on the contrary, I was free. Through books I time travelled to the past and the future. I went around the world in eighty days, 20,000 leagues under the sea, and to the moon, mars and beyond.

What began in the homes of white folk, accelerated and expanded in the library. In books people didn’t have colors, religions or tribes; they became real by the author’s ability to paint their character. Good and bad came in all shapes, sizes, genders and species; it was what they did that defined them. And so I learned the truth about myself and the human race throughout its history. I could not be fooled by biased news or slick talking politicians or by people who simply refused to acknowledge those ugly truths so many hide from.

Here I sit many years later. I’ve built a home in the suburbs; books and degrees line my wall, and Molly Maids come to clean my house every week. I give them books for their kids.

Many of the young black boys that tried to kill me are dead or in prison.  I see their sons in the juvenile prison where I work. We have a huge library in our youth prison. Sadly, it sits empty most every day.  I stop there to donate books and chat with the librarian. We talk about all the craziness and killings in Chicago and elsewhere most people ignore. Though our prison has its share of assaults and attacks I know the librarian will always be safe in the library. And that is both a happy and ugly truth.



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