I grew up, like many Americans – probably most Americans – surrounded only by members of my own race. My elementary school was completely white, there was one Black kid at my middle school, and there were no Black kids in my high school classes. Not until after college did I count Black folks as neighbors, co-workers, friends.
So I had very little personally observed knowledge of the life experience of people of races and ethnicities different from mine.
However, and fortunately, there were books.
When I was younger, I gathered impressions and grappled with things I didn’t understand when I read books such as “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and “The Color Purple” and “The Bluest Eye,” “Cane” and “Passing” and “Manchild in the Promised Land.” I found “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and “Kindred.” I picked up autobiographies by Sammy Davis Jr. and Chuck Berry and Shirley Chisholm and Charles Mingus and Malcolm X. I walked alongside people I didn’t know for a few hours. At some point, I probably thought I had figured it all out.
Of course I hadn’t. Each book I read gave me one window into a huge house where a lot is going on. But, and this is what books do, I encountered some truths different than my own, and I unavoidably increased my capacity for empathy. Now, every Black-authored book I read – whether it’s “The Warmth of Other Suns” or “Nickel Boys” or “Between the World and Me” – makes me understand how much more complex and tangled race and racism is, shows me some new slice of experience to assimilate. And in the summer of 2020, I began to feel a new obligation to keep reading, even if I’d rather switch to a different, less-upsetting subject.
That, I noticed, is exactly what The Mercantile Library has been doing for the last four or five years. They have hosted a non-token number of Black writers, not to mention more women, more Asian, more queer writers. The membership library, founded in Cincinnati in 1835 by young business strivers, was originally open only to white men (Women were allowed by 1859.). In more recent years, its antique atmosphere could seem hushed and literary, and the membership was definitely aging. But in the last few years, the library’s roster of events has started to look a lot different.
Zadie Smith was the first Black writer featured at their biggest event, the Niehoff Lecture, in 2017. Since then, novelists Colson Whitehead, Tayari Jones, Leesa Crosse-Smith and Brit Bennett, memoirist Kiese Laymon, Pulitzer Prize winners Marcia Chatelain and Wesley Lowery, non-fiction writers Wil Haygood and Jema Tisby, poet Marcus Wicker, and rapper and writer Chuck D. have been among the people who have taken the little elevator up to the 11th floor at 414 Walnut St.
Obviously, it hasn’t been accidental. When John Faherty, a former Cincinnati Enquirer reporter, became executive director six years ago, he was given a mandate of change from the board of directors: Open the library to new, younger, more diverse users.
“Every cultural institution has a mission to have a more diverse membership and audience,” he said. “For us, it wasn’t even hard to know where to start. It’s no harder than doing it the wrong way. Bring in great Black writers. If you’re ignoring Black writers, you aren’t getting the best of who’s writing today.”
Chuck D was a big get in 2019.
“I thought we’d really made it when we got Chuck D.” said Faherty. So many people bought tickets the talk had to be moved to the Underground Railroad Freedom Center. “But the audience was largely white,” he said. Not the sudden attraction of new faces he might have hoped for. “So we just do it and keep doing it. Keep telling people about it. You can’t just have one event and think you’ve done your job. You can’t trick people,” he said.
Faherty describes increasing Black programming as “selfish” because it is calculated to strengthen the institution. But it’s not just about that. It’s not just about white people having a chance to listen to what’s on the mind of Black writers, though that’s worth a lot. It offers the Black community the same things that have been offered to their white counterparts since 1835: the chance to hear directly from their literary representatives.
“I kept hearing this thing when I got here,” said Faherty. “We’re the best-kept secret in Cincinnati. Why would we want that? A library is for the whole community. The whole community should benefit.”
The events announced for this year’s season include more notable Black authors, including James McBride, author of “Deacon King Kong”; Ibram X. Kendi, who wrote “How to Be An Antiracist”; and Dr. Nisha Botchwey, who will present the Albert Pyle Urban lecture. ν
Polly Campbell covered restaurants and food for The Cincinnati Enquirer from 1996 until 2020. She lives in Pleasant Ridge with her husband and since retiring does a lot of reading, cooking and gardening, if that’s what you call pulling up weeds. During the pandemic, she has missed the theater, live music and, most especially, going to parties.