A short video that I took of “The American Library” at the VAC in Davidson College
When in the room that houses The American Library, the first thing that really grabs your attention is the scope of the Library. Surrounding on you all sides are rows of shelves filled with the vibrant bindings of hundreds of books. The manner in which all the books seem to comprise this large library creates this sense of unity. The books all seems to be contributing in manifesting the initial atmosphere. This very well might be playing into the idea of an “American Library”, emphasis on American, as America is typified by its national beliefs and values.
Upon closer inspection, the books in the library all have different names of people on their edges. Many of them are household names that one would easily recognize as someone famous. While these names may seem to suggest that the American Library or American Experience is written by these success stories (as the old saying goes: “History is written by the winners”), the art curator during my visit mentioned how all of these names were chosen specifically because they have an immigrant background. Hence, the meaning of the American library is nuanced by the idea that it consists of people from all these various backgrounds. This if further symbolized by the diversity of color on the prints of the books. All of these books are made with traditional African textile prints, which may also suggest that America was built on the resources of Africa.
One of the connections I have made to the exhibit in retrospect is how it seems to encapsulate an Afrofuturist aesthetic. In my literary analysis class, I spent a good deal of time focusing on Beyoncé’s Lemonade and its feminist Afrofuturist elements. One of the the consistencies that I had learned was how Afrofuturism is about reclaiming the Afrodiasporic identity. “The American Library” through its uses of African textiles is a celebration of African heritage. It represents the possibility of a future where African culture and knowledge is truly recognized and appreciated.
Another aspect of Afrofuturism present in “The American Library” is the “fluid relationship between the past, present, and future” (Womack 9). When engaging with the enormous stacks of books, one cannot help but feel a sense of historical magnitude. The books draw you in, almost asking you to open up their pages and see what lies inside. Libraries represent a container for memory of our pasts, and “The American Library” represents a library that gives a voice for those who have been underrepresented.
Lastly, when I saw “The American Library” I could not help but be reminded of a scene in Virgina Woolf’s extended essay “A Room of One’s Own”. In the essay, Woolf visits a university library. There, she discovers the many gates and barriers that prohibit her— and all women at the time—from receiving a higher education. Furthermore, the books are all written from the perspectives of white males.
Hence, I wonder how many immigrant and minority stories have we failed to recognize? How many people do we exclude from engaging in the humanities due to the monolithic nature of our own libraries and disciplines? Hopefully, exhibits like “The American Library” will remind us about the diversity of people’s culture and identities. And like the vibrant textile bindings of Shonibare’s books, we can add a little a color to the whiteness of our literary cannon.
- Womack, Ytasha. Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. Chicago Review Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/davidson/detail.action?docID=1381831.