Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Death of Nelson Mandela and the Potential for African American Male Librarians

The Late Great Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela passed away recently, and the media buzzes with praises and celebrations of a man who lived a courageous, magnificent life dedicated to social justice and peace. I will not even try to compete with the more eloquent statements about this great man.

But I will say this.

Mr. Mandela is a great role model for many African American male librarians, especially the young ones just graduating from library school or thinking about joining the profession.  Mandela was not afraid, as an old Nigerian friend often advises to "live his truth,"especially if that truth caused him personal pain. He wasn't afraid to fight the social wrongs, even if that fight meant that he would spend almost 30 years of his life in prison.

How does Mr. Mandela's life connect with African American male librarians?  Every African American men  live a certain truth, regardless of economic, social, or political status.


We are often hated and feared. Our bodies are often regulated through the penal code system.  And many of us live in a symbolic prison where the guards constantly use statistics and other evidence to remind us that we are intellectually  "less" than our white counterparts.



 Unfortunately, librarianship seems to suffer from its own form of apartheid--even as diversity initiatives struggle to diversify the profession.  Remember that African American men make up less than one-half of one percent of all librarians, according to ALA statistics. While the ALA cautions against interpreting their numbers as absolute, they also note that these figures remind us of this population continues to be significantly less than the majority of credential librarians.

In this context, we cannot afford to simply make a comfortable career. We can do so much more than providing "good service" to our patrons. Like Nelson Mandela in the political world of South Africa, we can show that African and African American men can make great and positive impacts in the equally political world of librarianship.

Of course, we don't expect most African American male librarians to spend 27 years in prison because of their convictions. That's unrealistic for the vast majority of African American men, including librarians. But we should expect African American male librarians to do something so radically different, so surprising--as to cause a virtual sea-change in librarianship. Yes, we serve our patrons. But this service should be informed by the same passion for social justice that carried Mr. Mandela through his 27 years in a South African prison.

How can this passion manifest itself in our daily lives? Instead of providing simple access to information, we can facilitate a radically different relationship with information, one that starts with the innate intellectual capacities of our patrons. We can show that information is the process of being shaped and shaping the world around us. We can show that information is neither simply a commodity to bought and sold nor a thing to find for a research project. We can help patrons question the creation and dissemination of information against their own lived experiences.

We should do this in honor of Mr. Mandela, and equally important because



American Library Association. (2012). Diversity counts: Update 2009-2010. 

Picture of Nelson Mandela (nd). Fox News.

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