Reading and Direct Action


What is reading’s relationship to direct action?

Published in Reading Now (dispersed holdings, 2021)

In A Right to Read: Segregation and Civil Rights in Alabama’s Public Libraries, 1900–1965, the librarian Patterson Toby Graham offers an account of the “read-in” movement in Alabama. After the bus boycott in Montgomery, Graham writes, “the lesson for the civil rights movement was that direct action would have to create conflict of sufficient magnitude to change public opinion and induce federal intervention” (69). For Black activists in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, this meant reading in public, in the library. Civil Rights leaders and students staged read-ins at branches throughout the state. Black community members would meet at the library, seek library cards, request books, and read. Some read-ins were peaceful. Other times, white rage met the expression of Black intellectual life, Black interiority, and Black personhood with hatred and violence. In certain cities, library boards, facing mounting social pressure, quietly desegregated. De jure segregation of libraries ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

I began to read Graham’s book in the fall of 2020 after many months of reading very little at all. Anxiety, grief, and anger consumed me. It started in March: I shuttled nervously between the bed and the desk in my partner’s spare room in Providence, leaving the room for the kitchen, and the kitchen for the world, the entire one, there in my hand, on my phone. Through social media, the world seemed so close one moment, so radically remote the next. Every time I’d try to replace my device with a book, I would think of my friends in New York and the rising case counts, and my concentration would fracture beyond repair.

The clutch of books I had gathered about plagues of the past sat unopened. I thought to myself: to read about something was to do nothing to change it. Instead I began a frenzied stint of research, trying to chart the fastest routes to becoming a registered nurse. I would be ready should this happen again. No more mouthing words, hovering over a page—only tending to a patient.

When in June the streets of Providence rang with chants of “I can’t breathe,” I joined a crowd of ten thousand downtown. Reading, or trying to, is solitary. Marching is not. No more mouthing words—only saying their names: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. It was the first time I had been in a group of people in months. “It’s important to go outside because you feel different when the weather touches you directly and because there are people there,” Hannah Black writes in “Go Outside.” I needed to remember.

After the marches in Providence were over, my life went quiet again. I would not join my friends at protests in New York for fear of being a vector, and so it was the room again, the chair. Historically, I would put the quiet to use and read. But in that silence, heavy with the names of the dead, sitting down to read was perverse and impossible.

Back in April, in an essay about the artist Moyra Davey, I wrote that “reading is how we are social at distance.” I believe that. But sitting in that apartment over June and July, I wondered about what kinds of sociality reading fostered. I wondered what distances reading closed and could never close. I wondered about where I was in relation to the world when I was reading a book. I wondered about reading’s relationship to direct action. The act of reading at the library sit-ins was part of a form of protest. But what was I doing when I sat down to read?

Throughout the summer, antiracist reading lists circulated among my friends, my family, the greater public. These lists index some of the politics of reading through their composition—the question of what to read is a political one. They also espouse a belief about reading’s dividends: education foments change. I believe this, too, though this year, when the minutes passed like days and when I found it hard to read, I considered the time it takes to educate, to know any book at all and to act on that knowledge. Where does this time come from? And to whom is it afforded? What are the political implications of those hours? I think of James Baldwin, seated before a shelf of books in the 1989 PBS documentary, The Price of the Ticket:

You always told me ‘It takes time.’ It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brothers’ and my sisters’ time, my nieces’ and my nephews’ time. How much time do you want for your progress?

In 2020, there was so much time to recognize that there is no time left at all.

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