Erin Aubry Kaplan, New York Times, December 5, 2021
About a year ago, I decided to build a library on my front lawn. By library, I mean one of those little free-standing library boxes that dot lawns in bedroom communities around the country — charming, birdhouse-like structures filled with books that invite neighbors and passers-by to take a book, or donate a book, or both.
I’d spotted the phenomenon on walks through upscale, largely white neighborhoods around Los Angeles and immediately resolved to bring it home to Inglewood. Why not? A library is not so much a marker of wealth and whiteness as it is an affirmation of community and cozy, small-town camaraderie that Inglewood, a mostly Black and Latino city in southwestern Los Angeles County, has plenty of. We deserved no less.
Prepandemic, Inglewood was gentrifying, another reason I’d been inspired to do the library: I wanted to signal to my longtime neighbors that we had our own ideas about improvement, and could carry them out in our own way. There are organizations that help people build these little libraries, but I did mine independently. I envisioned it as a place for my neighbors to stay connected during the pandemic. The wooden post on which the library sat was a stake in the ground, literally.
The response to the library was slow at first — it was the first in the area, and some people mistook it for a birdhouse, or a mailbox. But I was pleased to soon see people stopping by to browse and take home books.
Then one morning, glancing out my front window, I saw a young white couple stopped at the library. Instantly, I was flooded with emotions — astonishment, and then resentment, and then astonishment at my resentment. It all converged into a silent scream in my head of, Get off my lawn!
The moment jolted me into realizing some things I’m not especially proud of. I had set out this library for all who lived here, and even for those who didn’t, in theory. I would not want to restrict anyone from looking at it or taking books, based on race or anything else. But while I had seen white newcomers to the neighborhood here and there, the truth was, I hadn’t set it out to appeal to white residents.
Now that they were in front of my house, curious about this new neighborhood attraction, I didn’t know how to feel. By bringing this modern cultural artifact here from white neighborhoods, had I set myself up, set up the neighborhood? Was I contributing to gentrification and sending the wrong message about how I wanted the neighborhood to be?
What I resented was not this specific couple. It was their whiteness, and my feelings of helplessness at not knowing how to maintain the integrity of a Black space that I had created. I was seeing up close how fragile that space can be, how its meaning can be changed in my mind, even by people who have no conscious intention to change it. That library was on my lawn, but for that moment it became theirs. I built it and drove it into the ground because I love books and always have. But I suddenly felt that I could not own even this, something that was clearly and intimately mine.
So what message do I hope they took from my library? The same message I wanted to send to the rest of my neighbors, my community: Black presence has value — in every sense of the word, and on its own terms.
That value should make the casual displacement of Black people untenable, even immoral. And that will take much more than a little library to rectify.