This transcript of the CU at the Libraries episode “Living Library” has been rewritten for the University of Colorado Boulder Libraries news site. Press play to listen to this episode below or find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your podcasts.
Books are often thought of as paper and text, a tablet, or even an audiobook. Books are full of stories and information. No matter their shape, or content, books live in libraries.
But what if a book could be a person sitting directly across from the reader? They can tell their story and readers would listen. Just like an audiobook! Only, the “book” can respond to the reader’s questions right on the spot.
This is a Living Library. There are programs like this all over the world. Sometimes they are called different things. “Books” share their lived experiences with “readers.” They can look like counterstories, untold stories, or stories that come from the margins of their lives.
Then the readers and the book “talk.” Readers often bring their own life experiences into the mix, and questions to unpack together. This allows people with different lived experiences to be empathetic, to be curious, and to be engaged.
CU Boulder Libraries have so far held two Living Library events. Gwendalynn Roebke was a fellow for the Living Library program through the University Libraries. They participated as a Book in our first-ever Living Library and shared an original spoken word poem that garnered rave reviews for their “Book”.
On this episode of “CU at the Libraries,” Roebke agreed to share their story, “Begrudging Messiah: The Fetishizing and Deification of a Minority at CU” with all of us and to take questions and discuss in-depth with CU students Karim Sakkal and Jasmine Baetz.
The episode’s host, Interdisciplinary Humanities Librarian Megan Welsh co-organizes the Living Library program with Education Librarian Lindsay Roberts, and Head of Acquisition Services Juleah Swanson. After the “book” and “readers” talk, Welsh and Roberts will discuss the Living Library for those interested in learning more.
“Begrudging Messiah: The Fetishizing and Deification of a Minority at CU,” by Gwendalynn Roebke
GR: When we're thinking about my story, I think it's important that I have to thoroughly introduce myself and position myself within the story. So I'm a multiracial person. I'm black, native, and white, and with that comes a lot of racial ambiguity. And then with that ambiguity comes power. But also this feeling of helplessness because of how I look or how I'm perceived, I am either the most threatening person in the room or this very diminutive figure who then can take on a lot of verbal battery.
How this really comes together in my work is that I like to think holistically about how we be on campus or be in the world and think about ourselves. I try to make it more accessible and palatable through poetry, and when I do poetry it incorporates some of my work in social justice spheres trying to make it so that what's often unseen can be seen. This poem is called “Metaphor for the Modern Era:”
Relents begrudging messiahs wanted
Infallible for the good people policing what is proper right ringing next you wanted this.
Civilization crafted from manners society founded on sand.
With this poem, I wanted to say that when we think about how society perceives black and brown people, especially in academic circles, there's this thing that happens where sometimes what we're saying —no matter how radical it is— is somehow not perceived as aggression because we aren't perceived as aggressive. If we're seen as beautiful because of lighter skin or features or being able to speak properly. I think that's often what I encounter in my own experiences at CU.
When I went into writing this story I really had to bring about the idea of the magical negro, this idea that there is this all powerful black person that comes and bestows knowledge and this wealth of experience and wisdom to these needy white sub-characters who then ultimately because of this person's presence, because of this black person's magic, becomes better.
On this campus, I see this happen a lot with myself where I'll be asked questions or kind of prodded into speaking on topics in classrooms that, well sure I'm going to say something, but it isn't necessarily what I want to be doing. I don't want to be seen as a savior. I don't want to be seen as someone who's all knowing, even though I do want to engage in dialogue.
In my poem, when I say your intent is always shifting in this civilization, in the society, is this idea of today unpalatable. Today you can accept what I'm saying because somehow it keeps you comfortable. You don't see that you're the problem when I'm saying this to you. People have this weird dissonance where it's, ‘Oh this is no longer just entertainment.’ This person is not just saying these really provocative things for me to then giggle and think, ‘Oh I get what you're saying you, SJW.' I think this is super interesting but that, no, we're all involved in this. To call out oppressive tendencies and then to also call out ourselves is startling for people and to acknowledge that we are part of a problem with academia and still try to fight it and that scares people. But if we’re not free to call people out for the labels that are affording them privilege, and privilege for the labels that they actively use to leverage their power, then how are we going to get anywhere?
I am in a position of power as most people are on college campuses. Because that position of power puts me in a safer place to say what I want to say in the classroom, to say what I want to say onstage, then I’m constantly having to navigate and negotiate, ‘Okay, is this something for me to say or do I say this for someone else?’
That’s truly one of those difficult things being in academia and being on this campus and being black, brown, multiracial and queer is just really being hyper cognizant of what it is to pursue the field you’re pursuing and for why it’s good to actually bring something for the culture. Then on top of that, making sure you’re not actually being the oppressor in that space because someone’s always the oppressor in any space, be it because of education or color or phenotype or class or nationality.
Being in a position of power, you’re seen as the example, as the premier, as the person who’s supposed to take these whole populations with you on the way up. With your very existence in some ways, you do when you’re constantly fighting against a machine, making space for yourself or even speaking for others. So you have to be, again as I said in the poem, infallible. You can’t be flawed and you can’t have these human attributes of not always being perfect.
That’s also something that I really try to navigate and speak to and speak with people about.
Living Library Discussion
CU Boulder students Karim Sakkal and Jasmine Bates act as “readers,” asking the “book” questions and considering Roebke’s story along with their own.
JB: “Gwendalynn, when people discuss your identities with you, how do you feel? Empowered or objectified? Or maybe both?”
GR: “I think it is a mix of both, especially considering who's asking. Sometimes it's people from our own communities, so it's this curiosity. It's trying to find kinship. It's this idea of, ‘Hey, I'm going to ask you about you because I want to see if you're also in this with me, that we're the same culture the same kind of experience.’
“Then, I feel empowered because we are having very similar experiences. But then of course when its people outside of my community or people who are only asking to satisfy their curiosity and their curiosity is not born out of a place of wanting to understand me or get to know me then I'm kind of like, ‘Okay, you need to stop.’ This is definitely not me as a person, but me as an object.”
JB: “That makes sense.”
GR: “I would say everyone in this room has very different experiences with whiteness and the structural supremacy around it.”
KS: “It's been interesting for me my whole life pretty much because my parents are from Lebanon and Syria. Arabic was my first language and I grew up in a completely Lebanese Middle Eastern household. I learned English when I went to preschool and then after that, I was completely immersed in a white community, basically one of the whitest cities in all of Colorado. I’ve definitely had struggles with my identity because I’m pretty much just a white person who grew up in a Lebanese household. There's almost this sort of imposter feeling I get when I tell people I'm from the Middle East because what does that mean? I know a lot of people from the Middle East who are way more immersed in that culture than myself. So for me to meet other Middle Eastern people, meet other people from other cultures and see where I fit in on what seems to be a spectrum between my middleeasternness and my whiteness.”
JB: “That's wild, and I also struggle with this, with my white passing, then also being ‘Middle Eastern’ and not having a checkbox for that. Caucasian doesn't apply to folks from the Middle East, like it doesn't track. I think that that’s a key part of understanding intersectionality and our place on this campus and in the greater world.”
GR: “It's really important that even when we struggle with this idea that whiteness is very flexible and it's flexible to maintain power, then it’s also us taking a step back and saying, “Yeah, I do represent different forms of power but I'm still being underserved and I'm being underserved because I'm not even seen as a person worth serving. And I think we do have to demand more from the university for that.”
JB: “How would you say is the best way to open up dialogues around learning about a person’s identities or background?”
GR: “I think that the best way has to start with you truly thinking about your intention for wanting that dialogue. It's really centering yourself and saying,‘Why do I want to ask this person about this?’ Especially because when we think about how America is right now, how America's been for a long time, there is violence in a lot of the ways we talk about people and talk to people. So the first step is not coming into it just for yourself. The second step is not being entitled to any certain truth or having any assumptions. And third step is policing your language and making sure you're not trying to guide the answer you want from them.
“If the first thing you ask someone when you see them is 'Hey, where are you from? What’s your ethnicity?’ You’re not doing it genuinely, you’re just asking to satisfy your own curiosity.”
KS:” I've honestly found that the only polite way to find out someone's back story is just if they eventually become comfortable enough to let you know. Because if they don't feel comfortable enough to let you know, then you're just going to be intruding on their privacy. You might be making them feel uncomfortable and things like that. I just think it's best to wait. Most of the time and if you want to genuinely like former relationship with that person, then whether or not you find out where they're from or what their background is shouldn't matter.”
GR: “A lot of the times it's just us trying to survive or trying to thrive in a space. And when we actually accomplish that, then people on our campuses study us. It’s this weird anomaly that they need to piece apart and understand us or they resent us for it. Even people who resent black and brown people queer people doing well in academic spaces still kind of use us as a means for them to get better, as a means for their research, for their writing, to appeal to bigger audiences. So even though they'll write about our stories or they'll inquire about us, they’ll never really listen to us.”
JB: “Yeah and we're fulfilling one of the boxes that we have to check off for Inclusive Excellence funding. I don't know if it's that direct, but it feels that direct. Just thinking about how in the visual arts we have always had tokenized folks of color who have come before us. Thinking about the ways they've had to navigate and then also the ways that they may be semi-erased means that you're sort of constantly feeling alone in the space.”
KS: “To relate back to the poem, when people are trying to navigate this space where people are constantly wanting to know about your identity, constantly being weird about where you are from or what language you speak or what your sexuality is:it's also important to remember that for a lot of people, their own identity is confusing to them anyway so they don't really know where they fit in. This goes so deep on so many levels of how people are treating sexuality or how people are treating racially ambiguous people.”
GR: “It's this idea that only certain parts of us are lovable and the rest is a waste and we are living very full, confusing lives because we are people with many shifting parts and identities and we are learning about them. But our learning isn't prioritized— our learning about ourselves isn't seen as the end goal or something that's necessary or needed. It's other people learning about the parts of us that they've deemed interesting and deemed worthy of being present on a campus or in academia.
“I think the common theme with all of these stories and us just chatting again is that we're underserved here. With my story “The Begrudging Messiah,” it's that we're underserved and we have to pull ourselves up.
“Thank you for hearing my story, engaging in it, and having this dialogue.”
Two of the program’s organizers, Education Librarian Lindsay Roberts and Interdisciplinary Humanities Librarian Megan Welsh, discuss best practices.
MW: “Let's talk about everything that went into the planning.”
LR: “Yes. So first we ask books to apply which included defining their book title and their book description and asking them to attend a training.
“We've collaborated with several classes. We talked with a life writing class, a dialogue class, a communications class. We would visit the classes to explain the Living Library and invite students to be books and then usually the rest of the class would attend as readers.
“The students often write reflections or have some kind of discussion in the class which seems to really help provide context for them and helps them relate to the material in the class.”
MW: “Book sometimes share really deep personal experiences. How do you try to make books like Gwendalynn feel safe?”
LR: “That's tough. We can't truly make it safe and our books are being brave and vulnerable by sharing their stories. But we have created guidelines for books and readers with our expectations to try to create that respectful and healthy dialogue which does include disagreement and curious questions.
“In our training for books, we encourage self care and we have a retiring room for books who need some private space during or after the event. This year, we had volunteers as timekeepers and monitors at each table. But generally, when people realize one of the big goals at this event is to understand and listen, they're able to be compassionate and supportive readers. We've also collected feedback from books and readers to improve the event each year and we’ve definitely learned a lot from our first two years.”
MW: “If folks are interested in getting involved, what can they do?”
LR: “Yes. So we're planning for Spring 2020 now. Folks can go to bit.ly/CULivingLibrary to sign up as a book or a reader.
“It’s been really rewarding bringing this event to campus.”