Between the Margins: Liminality, “White Man’s Language,” and Marginalization for Librarians of Color in America (Gloria Steele-Hatten, December 11, 2018)

Between the Margins: Liminality, “White Man’s Language,” and Marginalization for Librarians of Color in America

 originally written by Gloria Steele-Hatten




Highlighting historical obstacles to literacy for the descendants of African slaves in America, this paper acknowledges generational alienation from literary pursuits, and identifies remedies for the Black librarian to find an equal footing in a glaringly majority white field of particularly nuanced and at times arduous information and research expertise. Large numbers of Blacks, spanning generations, have traditionally held suspicions of “book learnin’” and have commonly maintained statistically lower rates of successful job retention and job satisfaction in a librarian position, due to exclusion and social disadvantage. While this is true, Blacks are increasingly empowered with Information Literacy and the rising numbers of Black librarians in the field can help to inculcate a sense of overall belonging and validation among majority white colleagues. Likewise, this paper explores how mentorship programs can foster an increased sense of confidence in librarians of color who succeed at much higher rates when able to network and apprentice under other librarian superiors of color as role models and with other librarians of color as peers and support systems. With higher retention rates of librarians of color, this sets an increasing precedent as young children of color are then able to increasingly accept that whites are not, as they have traditionally been regarded, the gatekeepers of literacy or the writers of “diverse” history. The incongruent ethics of minority vs majority public library service standards is also addressed, often in parallel with the landmark Brown v Board of Education Civil RIghts case, in order to expose the disparity between the “Black libraries” and “white libraries” and the message this sendes subconsciously to emerging, young Black minds.


In Western society, displaced descendants of African enslavement and colonization, collectively known as the African Diaspora, are continuously confronting the challenge of living a dualistic, liminal existence as children of oppression. Inevitably, belonging to (as enslaved and oppressed individuals) a white, Eurocentric Western society truly anathema to Black existence, minorities of color, and Blacks in particular, are facing challenges with representation and media inclusion. This problem is especially nuanced and unique for librarians of color, in an industry that so fully encompasses and embodies the literacy traditionally, legally, and systematically denied them for generations.

Many librarians of color are aware of ancestral history in which literacy was literally forbidden, and book knowledge was elusive, if not impossible, the acquisition of which was often criminalized and deathly punished. For some African Americans, inheriting the traditionally oral history of indigenous African ancestry, the ability to read was a landmark achievement, a point of access into the mysterious world of the Europeanized Written Word. For others, “readin’ and writin’” was somewhat of a betrayal, a treachery to aspire to “the white man’s language” with which they’d been “had, took, hoodwinked, tricked, bamboozled, and led astray,” as Malcolm X has famously been quoted. This post-traumatic suspicion of English literacy may be found similar to many of those post-Depression, pre-WWII “crazy old” elders who, white and black, were suspicious of entrusting their money into banks and, suspicious of the government, would keep their money in cash, hidden in walls and under floorboards. For generations, many African Americans were just as suspicious of literacy as others were hungry for it.

Generationally, many African Americans came to perceive the very obvious disparities in demographical literacy as evidence that literary passions and pastimes were “for white folk.” Even in the present day, many impoverished demographics of urban Black youth are often bored by reading, and insist that Black children with an exceptional vocabulary and advanced reading skills are “trying to act white,” as if aspiration for education is an aspiration for white assimilation. Herein lies the historical problem with recruiting librarians of color, maintaining their tenure, and being able to successfully gain and maintain the interest of youth of color in attending and patronizing library services as a whole. Some of the most problematic issues librarians of color may have lie within the ability or inability to find enough material that represents them and their audiences, especially those librarians that are tasked with reaching younger audiences (i.e. school presentations, toddler story times, etc). To give voice and shape to the frustration of this fractured, dualistic experience, sociologists, social researchers, and the like must explore how that visibility and representation of diversity creates complex sociological narratives in young developing minds.

Glendora Johnson-Cooper’s essay “Strengthening the African-American Community Through Information Literacy” stresses the importance of literacy in general and in particular information literacy. Citing historical and statistical evidence of the generational lack of literacy– let alone informational literacy– in Black/African American populations, due to slavery’s absolute condemnation of a slave’s permission to read, this article does a great job of showing the desperate and consistent need for African Americans to “catch up” to white counterparts in literacy and being empowered and equipped to learn effectively. Historically, African Americans were strictly forbidden to read altogether, and, even after slavery, literacy was strongly discouraged and those seeking literacy were violently opposed. Over time, many generations of Blacks even came to willingly and willfully eschew literacy, feeling the “white man’s language was nothing but deceit and that “book learning” was trickery (similar to how some generations of post-Depression elders, white and Colored, came to fear keeping money in banks, fearing they’d be deceived or swindled. Even in recent generations, many African American youth have come to view literacy and reading as “boring” or even elitist, shrugging it off, at best, as a “white” pastime, rejecting literacy simply because they have not been taught how to learn:

To be information literate, a person must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and effectively use the needed information. Information literate people have learned how to learn. They know how knowledge is organized; they know how to find information, and they know how to use information in such a way they can teach others…the importance of information literacy in all aspects of our lives becomes evident when we consider our information society is growing at a rate which may exceed our ability to keep pace with technological change….with this rapid growth of [technological] resources which is fast approaching ‘information overload,’ people need to be taught when it is appropriate to select a particular source/format, how to use it, evaluate it, and gather the specific information they need. (Johnson-Cooper, pg. 185)

This perspective is crucial to aide the validity of this thesis. Citing historical examples of Black/Colored illiteracy, and illustrating the traditional barriers to its acquisition, the article makes quite clear the reason why, for generations, Blacks have generally and counally been “behind” in literacy, as well as, quite frankly, suspicious of literacy altogether, losing interest and passion for maintaining the same levels of literacy and information competence as their white counterparts. Explaining the expansion and evolution of literacy to include information and technological literacy is important because, in truth, many children, teens, and adults of color are “behind the times” technologically and, with the world rapidly globalizing via the grandiose scale of internet accessibility, Black demographics are in danger of a collective stunting of intellect as information is not merely accessed and read, it is internalized wholly differently now with interactive internet engagement and computer-based technology. The amount of Colored youth, for instance, engaged in coding versus their white counterparts speaks volumes and, just as Black children are confronted with not being able to intelligently articulate their own histories, having their stories literally written and read for them by white authors, white librarians and white teachers, Blacks will also not being able to write and encode their way into the Brave New World of the West’s technological future.

In her essay “Diversity in Leadership,” Cheryl L Branch thoughtfully and poignantly explores diversity politics and its nuanced complexities. Some of the hypocritical, paradoxical aspects of diversity politics in the postmodern era, include racial erasure and a form of whitewashing in the sense that “diversity” is used as a cover-all buzzword, a mask and muzzle to pretend to promote diversity in an effort to perpetuate the deception of “post racialism.” The postmodern insistence that “there is no racism” is a particularly vicious silencing, a covering up of the reality of racial discrimination, profiling, stigmatization, and marginalization of Blacks and minorities. Branch articulates:

“Prior research has posited that diversity, as a term and a concept, is essentially a euphemism, designed to avoid the complexity and emotion laden natures of terms, such as race, racism, sex and sexism (Winston, 2007, p131).” Diversity and multiculturalism suggest inclusiveness of diverse and many cultures; the obverse racism and race consciousness are rarely used, acknowledged, or studied The need for diversity cannot be investigated effectively without addressing the origins of the diversity deficit. The social reasons, cultural beliefs, and racial attitudes that account for the relative absence of people of color should be examined. (Branch, pg 204)

Thus, Branch here affirms that so-called “diversity politics” is truly a phenomena of erasure, tiptoeing around white privilege and providing a false “representation” without true visibility. This accounts for why it is currently trendy to go to great lengths to expand inclusive  books and media that provide “diverse” stories and ethnic visibility on the library shelves, while the seats of librarianship are still largely empty, devoid of true Colored representation. Following this train of thought, the psychological effects of this phenomena are irrefutable, even when hardly definable. Questions, whether rhetorical or answerable, include exploring racial power dynamics inherent in how Colored children feel when white librarians are given power and authority to tell and represent “their/our” stories. It is irresponsible, indeed reprehensible, for the white majority of mainstream society to continue to ignore and invalidate the inevitable cognitive dissonance that this causes.

Faced with a persistent myth of literacy as a form of assimilative “whiteness,” Branch and others address what oppression and inferiority complexes this continues to enforce and perpetuate subconsciously. Likewise, in “The Ethics of Access: Toward an Equal Slice of the Pie” by Samuel F. Morrison, the author discusses the inevitable cognitive dissonance that is a result of the inherent inability of so-called ethics to reconcile the needs of the majority and minority in library [and other public] services. Morrison goes to great lengths to cite many examples of the inherent opposition of ideals concerning the prioritization and importance of the public service and library services needs of majority and minority community subgroups. While Invoking Brown v Board of Education, he Masterfully reveals through poignantly clear parallels that the system of “separate but equal” still persists consistently today, and the disparities between quality of access, resources, and services in minority v majority libraries is still just as vast. Therefore, Morrison confirms some of Branch’s ideas on the paradox of today’s propaganda-driven conceptualization of so-called “diversity.” Morrison ultimately makes clear ways African Americans suffer under the cognitive dissonance that results from the dualism and separatism of this inherent paradox of being Black and continuously marginalized in a supposedly globalizing, diversifying America. This pretense of erased existence, thusly illustrated, exposes once and for all the hypocrisy evident in the whitewashing of so-called “diversity.”

The author of this article so Masterfully and eloquently illustrates the fulfillment of the needs of the minority and the majority are inherently opposed by design and never were meant to be reconciled ethically. Thus, the myth of “separate but equal” persists and exists today in subversive ways, couched in language and coded terms of so-called “inclusiveness” anand the appearance of diversity through well-placed “ethnic media” without true equality and representation of actual Colored bodies in positions of power and administration in staffing. Library obligation is to provide relevant information to, for, and about minorities as well as representation of such. Most importantly, minorities need more free library access by virtue and necessity of historical marginalization and disenfranchisement, and that goal has still not been reached. Morrison goes on to expose the fundamental falsehood of the “ethics” of public service as contradictory to the reality of the inequality inherent in the conflicting differences of the standards of  mainstream majority white public services which invariably lead to a shortage in resources to enable minority colored public services to meet the same standards:

…in recent times, ethics has returned to the forefront…Ethics is a system of moral principles and of values relating to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions. When two diametrically opposed obligations conflict with one another, an ethical dilemma occurs. It is settled only by weighing and evaluating the importance of the conflicting obligations. The moral conviction of a democratic society supportive of freedom of information versus the welfare of the public might well be an example of two opposing obligations. Equal access to information by the people versus the provision of relevant and friendly information is another wordset of potentially opposing obligations. The free library for the good of the public versus quality library services is also a contender….Providing access and fulfilling the needs of the majority versus providing access and fulfilling the needs of the minority is yet another opposing set. If one adds the words “equal opportunity” then the impact of this statement upon the library is significant….there is a responsibility of the public library to provide meaningful and quality access to minorities….A library is obliged to determine who the [minority] groups are, their social, cultural and demographic characteristics, and their information needs…library is obligated to plan for the inclusion of the needs of minority groups in its overall programmed service…..meaningful, quality-oriented access requires the inclusion of minority considerations in all aspects of library operations. Foremost among these are the big four: collections, staffing, programming, and facilities…..minority groups in particular experience to a higher degree the limitations of cultural, education, and language barriers. (Morrison, pg 97-99)”

Like Morrison, in the essay “Inequality of Resources in School Libraries in the 21st Century”, Ndiaye heavily invokes and cites the historical Civil Rights case Brown v Board of Education, confronting the yet-persisting, erroneous concept of “separate but equal” still not-so-subtly perpetuated in today’s glaringly obvious disproportionate quality and availability of resources in minority public schools and libraries versus majority white schools and libraries. Ndiaye recounts personal experiences in her own urban school district, with majority students of color, and the distinct differences in quality for the libraries in her district versus majority white districts:

….schools….with majority Hispanic and African American students, tend to have markedly fewer library resources than the majority white schools…I believe that the persistently lower academic achievement of students in the “majority minority” schools is inextricably linked to the fact that our libraries have been chronically underfunded for many years. The student body of the middle school where I am librarian is comprised of 39.9% Hispanics, 28.4% African Americans, 19.8% whites, and 7.8% Asians, and 63.1% come from economically disadvantaged families. (Ndiaye, pg19)


Here, through Ndiaye’s diligence in observation and research is revealed the importance for the insightful parallels drawn between the current state of minority vs majority public libraries and the historical disparities that were paramount to the landmark ruling of Brown v Board of Education case. Illuminating the importance of the historical decision, and exposing the hypocrisy of its supposed “progress,” Ndiaye reveals that, even nearly half a century later, in reality many public library institutions today operating in minority vs majority demographics are no different than in the post-Reformation, pre-Civil Rights, and post-Civil Rights eras in America.

Acknowledging the disparities between lower-quality colored minority libraries and higher-quality white majority libraries in history and the present, it is imperative to then discover the necessity of programs that seek to remedy this systematically oppressive paradigm and heal the historical wounds of literary disenfranchisement and political marginalization. One way to remedy the lack of confidence Black youth and adults have in literary aspirations, research functionality, informational literacy, and the engagement of library facilities and services, is through empowering more Black librarians and motivating them to stay the course and commit to the field in order to increase visibility and credibility of Black scholarship. Emily K Chan’s piece, “Discovering Librarianship: Personalizing the Recruitment Process for Underrepresented Students,” explores the shortage of, and necessity of, programs for mentorship and recruitment for aspiring librarians of color. The importance of recruitment and Black mentorship is emphasised, and the tradition of being “grandfathered in” to academic librarianship due to role model influence “through the pipeline,” and being “led by example.” A significant quote to be included within the thesis is:

Since 1926, there have been approximately four ALA-accredited programs at HBCUs. These programs helped strengthen the pipeline of diverse professionals by training and preparing African Americans for careers in librarianship with a focus on servicing their own communities. Today, only one such program remains. Through grant-funded recruitment initiatives, a number of schools have made efforts to remedy the lack of representation of students of color….(Chan, et. al., pg 16, 17-18, 22).

Chan describes the limitations– and limited number– of mentorship programs which, in fact, have decreased over time instead of increased; yet also emphasises the success of the existing initiatives, and the vital need for their continuation, expansion, and standardization. Instead of merely being implemented in HBCUs as they have been traditionally– and even then, systematically repressed and reduced in number– Chan suggests they be implemented industry-wide to promoted more diversified workplaces and normalize Black mentorship in order for Black librarians to extend their tenure due to the satisfaction of “connect[ing] with peers and learn[ing] firsthand from veteran librarians who looked like [them](Chan.” Having observed and experienced the vital need for such mentorship programs, relationships, and dynamics, Chan was able to identify a list of benefits identified by recruiters on the efficacy and efficiency of the mentorship program to fully motivated often insecure, out-of-place minority librarians (p27)Booth was provided with the opportunity to connect with peers and learn firsthand from Veteran librarians who looked like him….also includes a significant listing of “benefits to having participated in the program (p.27-28)” Such characteristics and benefits pointed out and lauded by recruiters include:

  • Ability to provide tangible, professionally developed informational/recruitment materials to interested individuals
  • Greater willingness to network and engage with students to promote librarianship
  • Using one’s participation as a way to introduce diversity issues and topics to colleagues and the work environment
  • Remaining conversant in the initiatives and opportunities targeting students and never librarians
  • Reaffirming one’s commitment to the profession

Chan’s awareness is indispensable, as it provides a review of the “grandfathering” of the mentorship system and points out several reasons why the system produces successful retention results. Minority librarians of color invariably benefit from this type of mentorship, and it irrefutably increases the number of librarians of color who continue to commit to the profession. Indeed, without a support system of this sort, many librarians of color would bow out of the commitment, feeling alienated, ostracized, and greatly, uncomfortably marginalized. Often taken for granted at face value, the behind-the-scenes importance of the mentorship relationship for the librarian of color often offers the mentee a confidante that looks like them, a shoulder to cry on, so to speak, about frustrations unique to the discrimination (blatant or subversive, insidious or explicit) faced by those in marginalized, minority positions. It helps the aspiring librarian of color, working their way up the ladder to feel reaffirmed and find a voice in a reflection that looks like them.

Reflections and representations with which one can readily identify him/herself are vital to human development in general, and this project ore than ever. Terida Anantachai describes the importance of communal networking for librarians of color. The necessity of having fellow librarians of color to connect with, network with, and work with is not to be underestimated. In a majority white industry that, by and large, serves a majority white mainstream America, networking between Blacks, even at ethnic-centered events and Black-only library association gatherings is an affirming experience that helps validate the experience of working in a largely alienating industry. Like academic or extracurricular groups on college campuses for students of color in a majority white University, Blacks networks and subgroups that create space for themselves/each other are not only affirming but empowering and justifies one’s space and experience in a field historically, deliberately, and systematically closed to them/us. A critical quote to be included in the thesis paper states:

As libraries remain predominantly staffed and structured by the majority white culture, the few librarians of color often find themselves feeling marginalized and without access to a supportive group of similarly diverse-minded colleagues to whom they can relate and confide. This in turn can also affect their own advancement in the profession, as professionals are generally better equipped to grow and to succeed when they have such collegial group environments and networks at their disposal. Bearing this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that issues related to a lack of job satisfaction, advancement, and retention are also so prevalent among this group. (Anantachai, pg32)

Anantachai herein reveals the resources that validate the Black Librarian Experience, in the sense that companionship found in like-minded colleagues also of color is in and of itself a resource that bolsters minority librarians’ confidence in the majority white field, and gives a footing and “A Seat At The Table,” in a manner of speaking. Although still a statistical minority in terms of percentage, when a librarian of color is able to identify colleagues, partners, and co-workers of color, as well as mentors to learn from and look up to, they are able to obviously feel more comfortable, more accepted, and more capable. Motivated by visibility, no matter how small, job satisfaction, commitment, and competence exponentially rises in the case of librarians of color with a like-minded and common color support group as opposed to librarians that find themselves alone, the only Black faces in their library network. Inevitably, as well, the number of colored librarians will increase, as increasing number of mentorship programs in which minority librarians of color feel validated and their voices and concerns as minorities genuinely understood.

Continuing the dialogue on the importance and success of mentorship programs, particularly in minority areas, Melody Royster and her team write the essay “Mentoring and Retention of Minority Librarians,” which confirms too that mentorship is an imperative for success in many industries, librarianship included. Many fields, whether artistic, scientific, or political, have traditionally always worked with some sort of apprenticeship system implemented. Since the dawn of time, apprenticeship was utilized to pass on secret arts, specialized techniques, and essential insider knowledge that continues the success of the trade or industry itself. Just as in ancient times the secrets of blacksmithing were not for everyone, and the unique secrets of its Craft were passed down through exclusive mentorship, so, too, is the very nuanced field of librarianship. The meticulous requirements of the prodigious and arduous rigors of cataloguing information, let alone categorizing, defining, and analyzing its importance to preserve it (thus critically connecting history with a far off future), is likewise exclusive knowledge only a few can access an assimilate. Thus, mentorship to pass on these “secrets” is crucial, as this article illustrates. Indeed, without mentorship especially for often outcast and overlooked librarians of color, whose intelligence and competence is often overtly or subversively questioned and attacked, the successful retention of the secrets of librarianship would cease. Royster, et. al., writes:

Mentoring provides psychosocial support needed for junior librarians to feel included, which in turn feeds into the commitment to the current library workplace. Mentors advocate for their proteges and provide much needed career assistance and networking. For librarians of color, mentors with a common background serve as positive role models to establish rapport and connections, resulting in a higher probability of retaining new librarians….mentoring research commonly finds that the protege identification with the mentor is important to the success of the relationship, and to realizing benefits from it. (Royster, pg 62).

Royster, et. al., thus painted a poignant, and often personal portrait of a young librarian whose success in the field is credited almost solely to the success of a close mentorship from an esteemed elder in the tradition. Thus, the personal triumphs accredited to the example and role model set by the mentorship program elders was touching, as many themselves had lived through Civil Rights era oppression and marginalization and, thus, all the more hungry for the validation of not only literacy in general for Blacks who had historically been denied such access, but librarianship in particular, which enabled a unique sense of power in, literally, holding and shaping the history in their hands and conservatorship as librarians.


Works Cited

Anantachai, Tarida, et. al., “Chapter 2: Establishing a Communal Network for Professional Advancement Among Librarians of Color.” Where Are All The Librarians of Color?: The Experiences of People of Color in Academia. Hankins, Rebecca and Juarez, Miguel. 2015. Library Juice Press. California, USA. pp.31-55

Branch, Cheryl L. “Chapter 37: Diversity in Leadership” The 21st Century Black Librarian in America: Issues and Challenges. Jackson, Andrew P., Jefferson Jr., Julius C., Nosakhere, Akilah S. 2012. The Scarecrow Press. United Kingdom. Pp 203-207

Chan, Emily K., et. al. “Chapter 1: Discovering Librarianship: Personalizing the Recruitment Process for Under-Represented Students.” Where Are All the Librarians of Color? The Experiences of People of Color in Academia. Hankins, Rebecca and Juarez, Miguel. 2015. Library Juice Press. California, USA. pp11-31.

Johnson-Cooper, Glendora. “Strengthening the African-American Community Through Information Literacy” The Black Librarian in America Revisited. Josey, EJ. 1994. The Scarecrow Press. United Kingdom.

Morrison, Samuel F. “The Ethics of Access: Toward an Equal Slice of the Pie.” The Black Librarian in America Revisited. Josey, EJ. 1994. The Scarecrow Press. United Kingdom. Pp 97-107.

Ndiaye, Joyce F. “Chapter 2: Inequality of Resources in School Libraries in the 21st Century.” The 21st Century Black Librarian in America: Issues and Challenges. Jackson, Andrew P., Jefferson Jr., Julius C., Nosakhere, Akilah S. 2012. The Scarecrow Press. United Kingdom. Pp.19-23

Royster, Melody, et. al., “Chapter 3: Mentoring and Retention of Minority Librarians.” Where Are All The Librarians of Color? The Experiences of People of Color in Academia. Hankins, Rebecca and Juarez, Miguel. 2015. Library Juice Press. California, USA. pp55-71.

Samuel, Syntychia K. “Chapter 13: The Challenge of Designing and Promoting Services for Teens of Color Without Losing One’s Sanity.” The 21st Century Black Librarian In America: Issues and Challenges. Jackson, Andrew P., Jefferson Jr., Julius C., Nosakhere, Akilah S. 2012. The Scarecrow Press. United Kingdom. Pp. 93-97.





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Gloria Steele is a mother, Oracular channel, Genius, Lit-geek, screenwriter, and fertility health counselor, passionate about healing through the power of the Word, integrating spirituality, sexuality, and art. With acute aptitude for interpreting the spiritual, mythological, or symbolic in literature, film, media, and pop culture, Gloria Steele loves raising the Collective Feminine Consciousness by teaching herbal self-healing and engaging in socio-sexual-political discourse concerning representations of women in modern mass media and how these images inherit, perpetuate, challenge, or refute ancient ideas and representations of women, particularly in religious iconography, mythology, and ritual. A prolific researcher and academic ghostwriter of award-winning thesis papers and dissertations, she has also created, curated, and contributed to several blogs, including The Gorgeous Girls' Guide and Examiner. Taught to read by age 2, writing since 5, published poet at 11, Gloria Steele is ambitious about returning the artistry, glory and glorification to dedicated literary Craft and Scholarship. While not writing, Gloria Steele enjoys Ecstatic Dance, cooking, and travel. Authored, Edited, and Self-Published books available at Some Publications & Features: “Diodachi” featured in Enheduanna: A Pagan Literary Journal October 2016 Samhain Edition (forthcoming), published by The Salt Lake Pagan Society “Wombyn, Womb-In”, "Love Letter to Veludo" Published in The Dark Ones Anthology published by Bibliotheca Alexandrina (forthcoming) “temptress blamed, woman scorned", and "Ofo Ase" Published in Garland of the Goddess Anthology published by Bibliotheca Alexandrina (forthcoming) “Odinnson” featured in An Eternal Haunted Summer ezine Winter Solstice 2016 edition (forthcoming) published by Asphodel Press “GodMaker” and “Delicious Culpability” featured in Poems To F*ck To, Poetry In Motion Publishing, LLC February 2015

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