Mary Patten

Unpacking My Library: Black Books, and The Ways of White Folks

by Mary Patten

While beginning my research for Organize Your Own, i happened to hear Emory Douglas speak. What a thrill to hear him talk about Letraset and all the other tools of layout and paste-up from the graphic design and poster art he made with the Panthers. In the Madame Binh Graphics Collective, we used those exact tools, too, clumsy and inexact, but very tactile, like all old-school printing processes.

This made me think of fonts, and particularly our preferred ones back then—Franklin Gothic, Optima, and Cooper Black. Fonts, the crucial element in what used to be called “typesetting”—in book design, pamphlets, chapbooks.

Thinking about poetry and pamphlets, books and literature, brought me to the role of reading in de-centering my world, and worldview . . . remembering how reading brought me into life, and how important to life are building libraries and archives of knowledge.

i looked again at my own library, at my disorderly collection of Black books, gathered across a span of nearly fifty years—tracing titles, finding Post-it notes and ragged book jackets, rereading precious words on cheap, available paper . . . thinking about Walter Benjamin’s idea that one comes alive in and through one’s books. But mostly I thought about the disorganizing power of knowledge, and the power that books have to dismantle worlds, even.

The Ways of White Folks

In 1935, Langston Hughes published these stories, holding up a mirror to white America . . . or maybe not. Maybe the book, like any book, was a window for people to look through, and to choose whether or not to recognize themselves in its pages.

i found a copy of the first edition hardcover in the Carter Woodson Library, in Washington Heights, on the far South Side of Chicago. It’s part of the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature. A small olive green book (i later learned that another edition had been bound in a rusty red), with an art deco/art nouveau engraving of the title. i opened it, and found Langston Hughes’s signature sprawling across the frontispiece, big and elegant in india ink.

(i hear his velvety voice, reciting. . . .)

But there was no dust jacket. Most libraries don’t keep those. They rip, fall apart, and disappear. After weeks of hunting, i found the dust jacket at both the Beinecke Library at Yale University, and at an antiquarian bookseller’s in Connecticut. Big, blockbuster sans-serif type—reverse type (white) on a soft black-brown background. Very different from the quiet embossing on the actual book.

This was one of the first books to profoundly change the way i looked at the world, and the first time i encountered a writer who made me look at White People as a uniquely strange species. It was unnerving. . . . i was compelled to read, look, listen, and feel from Hughes’s point of view, but the species was “my own”—a kind of double (shot–reverse shot) vision.

Black Books, White Readers (A Postscript)

Books are not bragging. i do not believe in an interpretation of “organize your own” as white people quoting Black people to other white people. i can embody the righteousness of Aimé Cesaire’s “Leave this Europe,” but only for a moment. i cannot live there.

The history of their acquisition is the history of my initial encounters with my books. In his essay, Benjamin writes that “ownership (is) the most intimate relationship one can have to objects.” But as much as one might try, one doesn’t “own” a body of knowledge. My library and all our libraries continue to live in and beyond us, the more we put them to use.

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Mary Patten is a visual artist, video-maker, writer, educator, occasional curator, and a long-time community and political activist. Her practice is fueled by the desire to address collisions as well as alignments between politics and art-making. She has exhibited and screened work for thirty years in alternative spaces, university museums, and international film / video festivals. Her work includes single-channel video, video installation, drawing, digital media, photography, performance, artists’ books, and large-scale collaborative projects. Her book Revolution as an Eternal Dream: the Exemplary Failure of the Madame Binh Graphics Collective was published by Half Letter Press in 2011. Currently she collaborates with Chicago Torture Justice Memorials and Feel Tank Chicago. Since 1993 she has been teaching in the Film, Video, New Media, and Animation Department of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. marypatten.com

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