How a vote on whether to “rededicate” library funds could deliver a harsh blow to the Black Community

By Edwin Crayton/Opinion

If you have been celebrating Black History Month by reading about black history, perhaps you have noticed that there are at least two ways to make Black History. The first way is the positive way. You can do that by contributing something to the world the way Garrett Morgan did when in 1923, he invented the traffic signal we use today. The second option is the negative way. To make history this way, you need to do something to hinder black progress—like the people who shouted insults at little six-year-old Ruby Bridges as she bravely integrated her elementary school in New Orleans, each day, accompanied by federal marshals in the year 1960. This coming April 29 (April 15 for early voting), we could witness the negative option firsthand when voters are asked to decide if the Parish Council should be allowed to take money from the library and use it to work on the roads in the parish. Fixing the roads is not a bad thing. But to do it at the expense of the library will bring painful cutbacks that will weaken the Parish Library System in significant and senseless ways. Make no mistake about it, if this misguided proposal passes, it will hurt all Natchitoches residents as well as users of the library. But because Natchitoches is predominately black, the black community will suffer most. So will the poor and anyone who depends on the library in order to gain access to new technology and information services. Service, that would not be available without the library.

The Parish Council voted 3 to 2 to put this proposal on the ballot. It is called “rededication”. But what that five-dollar word really means is in plain English is: they are proposing taking money from the library and rededicating it to roads. Here’s how the Library explained it: “The council is specifically asking voters to “rededicate half of the library’s millage—approximately $1.5M—and use it to “fix” Parish roads exclusively outside the city limits of Natchitoches…” I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how difficult it is to live on a budget that is basically half of what you have or expect to have coming in to take care of your expenses. Here is what will happen if the library has to try to survive on such a vicious cut:

With reduced funds, the library will have to close the relatively new Campti Branch. That branch is a ray of hope in Campti, a poor town with a high African American population and a lot of poverty. I visited the branch as I was writing this and the day I went in, I saw black parents working with their children on projects. Beautiful. Before that library was planted there, that would not have happened. In fact, when I asked people what was in the location before, no one could remember anything other than it was a vacant lot. Well, if we go backwards and lose that branch, parents surely can’t help their child do social studies or math homework while sitting in a grassy lot, can they? The branch has an African American manager. She is youthful, polite, intelligent, helpful. But let’s face it: no branch, no manager.

At the main branch in downtown Natchitoches, new technology has turned the library into a kind of unofficial job center. People use the computers to search for jobs, create resumes and submit applications. As a matter of fact, I remember that when I was looking for work once, the employment agency did the counselling and processing, then actually sent me to the library’s computer lab. It worked. That technology will be reduced. The digital resources will be cut back in general. The staff itself will have to be reduced—fewer jobs. As we all know, you have to pay good people a decent wage. Expect to lose top people and bright people if cuts happen. What’s worse is these are the people who made the main library state-of-the-art, technologically speaking. And they are building up the Campti branch in a similar way. About a month ago, I read in the Town Talk that Louisiana students are struggling with reading and literacy in general needs to be improved. The library has creative programs designed to encourage and reward kids for getting better at reading. This is not the time to be going backwards in literacy. The book mobile has outreach to many communities where African American children live. Yet, those services will be reduced as well. A more literate, better informed Black Community is always a stronger one. The enemies of African Americans have historically always known this. It’s why they punished blacks for learning to read during slavery

The other night, I watched a documentary about the value of books called “The Booksellers”. In that film, an expert in rare books said that first edition copies of Ian Fleming’s “Casino Royale” sell for $130,000. In the 19 Century, Business Tycoon J.P. Morgan bought a first edition copy of the Guttenberg Bible for about $2,000 and an expert said today it would sell for $40 million. When I heard that, obviously it occurred to me that most of us could not afford those prices. They’re just too unattainable—even the $2,000 Morgan paid. I then realized that this is what it feels like to a poor person who is told he or she must be able to access new technology in order to do the basic things required to live and yet, they have no access to technology. It’s as unattainable as that $130,000 book. How can we take technology away from the poor when we are living in an information age? Even to fix a little stretch of road. Actually, choosing between good libraries and roads is a choice no community should be forced to make in the first place. I have to believe there has got to be a better way to fix the roads than this ill-conceived proposal.

After I left the new Campti library, I had to travel to a very poor black neighborhood just up the road. The houses had a shaky, unstable quality. They looked beaten up by both weather and life itself. They reminded me of the sharecropper shacks from the Segregation era. I thought about the families that live in them. I imagined the children who grow up there. I have no doubt that most of them want out of there. The best way out is through faith in God as well as literacy and education. The library can help them attain the last two. But it can’t if we take their library away. A “No” vote helps keep the library safe from that threat. It’s an investment in our community and our children. When you get into the voting booth, you will notice the lawyers have written this proposal in such confusing, tricky language, most normal human beings won’t know what it is saying. That’s okay, because the way I figure it, there’s only word on the ballot you need to know and it’s the one word that’ll fix this whole mess: “NO”.

“I have found the most valuable thing in my wallet is my library card.”-Former 1st Lady Laura Bush
“The only thing you absolutely have to know is the location of the library.” -Albert Einstein
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”—Jesus urging us to consider others.