In his opening keynote at the 2017 ALA Midwinter Meeting in Atlanta, just hours after Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, W. Kamau Bell made a plea to librarians: don’t let Trump’s vision of America become the new normal.
“Everything that's happening right now in America, you're on the front lines of that,” Bell, a popular comic, podcaster and television host, told a packed auditorium. “Now, more than ever you have the power to expand the idea of what America is. It is starting to contract, and we need to reopen by putting books in the hands of kids.”
Bell’s opening talk struck a chord with his audience, both funny and serious, and at times unflinching in its appraisal of America’s new president—at one point concluding that Trump is, without question, a racist. “I see people trying to make Trump normal, and a lot of smart people with all their faculties will actually say, ‘is he a racist? Is Donald Trump a racist?’” The answer—which some in the audience shouted out—is yes, Bell said.
“The reason he is president is because he built his career the last few years by being the number one voice for the birther movement,” he explained. “He decided he would go out there and lead the charge to question the legitimacy of the birth of Barack Obama.”
Bell clearly had many fans in attendance, and in a Q&A period librarians asked about his many roles, including his docu-series United Shades of America and his podcasts Politically Re-Active and Denzel Washington Is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period. And following his talk, he signed and gave away free copies of his forthcoming memoir and manifesto, The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6’4”, African-American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Black, Proud, and Asthmatic Blerd, Mama’s Boy, B-Student, and Stand-Up Comedian (Dutton), which will be published in May.
Bell told librarians that it was now especially important for people make themselves visible in their communities.
“We have to see each other, we have to be here for each other, we have to honor each other. And the people in this room, librarians have to be actively expanding everyone's idea of what this country is supposed to be. As I said, you are on the front lines. You put books in people's hands, and you have to make sure that the books you put in people's hands are a wide array of ideas, and a wide array of authors, of diversity, of color, of sexuality, of gender orientation.”
Indeed, as librarians gather in Atlanta, they do so under a cloud of uncertainty. On January 19,The Hill reported that Trump intends to "entirely" eliminate the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
As of Saturday (January 21), ALA officials had no official comment on any potential cuts, but sources told PW that funding for the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which provides millions in grant support to libraries annually, was also under threat. In addition, under a new Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos (who is not yet confirmed) the future of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), an education bill that includes critical support for school libraries, and is set to be implemented for fall of 2017, is also up in the air. Trump is also reportedly set to tap Ajit Pai as his pick to lead the FCC. Pai is said to oppose net neutrality rules, which the library community supports.
At last June's ALA annual conference in Orlando, ALA celebrated the 50th anniversary of the NEH, with NEH chairman William D. Adams on hand to speak to the importance of the humanities within a healthy democracy.
“There is no democracy without the act of memory,” Adams told librarians adding that the “humanities and democracy are deeply and permanently intertwined in the history of the life of this country.” Adams further noted libraries were a major recipient of NEH support, with the nearly 3,400 library grants awarded over the last 50 years totaling $515 million, plus another 80 grants to the ALA, beginning in 1971, most recently funding the ALA’s Great Stories Club program, which provides access to books to at-risk and underserved youth.
Last year, The Great Stories Club put free copies of Congressman and Civil Rights leader John Lewis’s March in the hands of many young readers nationwide.
The 2017 ALA Midwinter Meeting runs through Tuesday, January 24. Among the major highlights to come, the coveted Youth Media Awards, which include the Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, and Coretta Scott King awards, will be announced on Monday morning.
And on Sunday, January 22, the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction, will be announced.
The 2016 nominees in fiction include Michael Chabon for Moonglow (Harper), Zadie Smith for Swing Time (Penguin Press), and Colson Whitehead for The Underground Railroad (Doubleday), which recently took home the National Book Award. For nonfiction, the finalists include Patricia Bell-Scott for The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice (Knopf), Matthew Desmond for Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Crown), and Patrick Phillips for Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America (Norton).