This past weekend, I had an experience at the public library that impacted the way I see the world. Ironically, since moving here, the library has been one of few places of refuge for me in this town. Being surrounded by mountains of books that imagine a wide range of experiences gave me the tools to imagine a reality where people like me – Black women – existed in abundance and thrived despite racial and gender bias.
My library visits were an opportunity to distance myself from the proverbial chains that accompanied the expectations of marriage and motherhood. The mixed scent of old and new books is enough to calm my anxious breathing. It’s one of the few times I feel my muscles relax. The library truly is my safe haven.
But being followed by a security guard while meeting with a group of Black women for a book club changed the way I view my safe space forever. I’ll never forget seeing his face peeping through the cutout of our meeting room door. He was only there for a couple of minutes, but it felt like hours.
The energy in the room shifted immediately. We stopped laughing and talking about our favorite books and told the children to be silent and still. One member whispered that they believed someone had called security on us. We’d committed the historical crime of enjoying life while Black.
It seemed easier to leave than find ways to adjust our behavior. So we wrapped up quickly and decided to end the meeting. As we exited the room, he was gone. But our discomfort wasn’t. Especially since shortly after we returned to the main floor, we saw him, watching from a distance. Our library has three large floors but somehow, he ended up within a few feet and was moving closer at each opportunity.
My friend and I spoke directly to the circulation attendant, but the security guard’s unwavering stares made it feel more like a four-way conversation. As I stood there watching him watch us, my uneasiness – and frustration – intensified. I wanted to know why he was standing there. What was it about our presence that made him feel the need to oversee our every move? He locked eyes with me as he finally decided to return to the second floor, after standing there making us uncomfortable with his presence for at least five minutes.
And again, I didn’t feel better when he left. He was a security guard, but as a Black woman, I knew in a matter of seconds, the situation could escalate to something that motivated him to flex his authority, or worse, engage the police.
My friend and I finished our conversation with the circulation attendant, which was frustrating in its own way, and hugged each other goodbye.
As I walked out of the door, I saw him standing over the balcony watching us once again — this time having the audacity to wave at my son with a smile that communicated more than I have the words to express. My stomach felt sick.
My anxiety quickly shifted to anger when I had the chance to process the incident from the car. I was furious that Blackness is enough to make one appear suspicious. In my heart, I knew limits on how many Black people were allowed to congregate in a space (and vagrancy laws) were still in effect — just unspoken.
I called my friend and did my best to put my feelings into words. But all I had were tears. I wanted to know why the world was like this. Why was the line between me and the criminal justice system so fine regardless of my attempts to subscribe to “law-abiding citizenship”?
I started thinking about everyone who’d posted statuses about the looming threat of gun violence and their fears of being involved in a mass shooting. It’s a valid fear. I’m afraid of being gunned down while shopping as well.
However, the odds are higher that the bullet that takes me out will come from an authority figure. I’m reminded of going through school with security guards, police, and others intending to preserve law and order. And all I’ve ever felt around these figures was discomfort.
I can’t recall ever seeing a security guard or police officer and breathing a sigh of relief. But I can recall the soreness and muscle tension I feel in the aftermath of the fight or flight response they trigger.
It’s become increasingly clear that even being a “good Black woman” wouldn’t protect me in a society that’s deemed me problematic. Just last week, a childhood friend of mine posted a status about being pulled over by police at gunpoint. Her children were in the car and she was afraid that would be the end of her life.
Being gunned down in front of your children is a Black parent’s worst fears. As white supremacy calls for the radicalization of young white males, it seems white parents hold the fear of their sons being the one holding the gun.
My recent experience at the library held me realized there’s no place that authority figures lack the discretion to see me as a disturbance. I pray I never come face to face with a mass shooter. But as a Black mother, I know that any white man with a gun could be the one to take me out.
I’m angry. I want the freedom to read books and attend book clubs with my friends at the library without feeling like my presence is a problem. I don’t want to hear any more stories of parents and children being massacred during everyday tasks. But I know unless we do something about white supremacy and anti-Black bias, my family won’t be safe regardless of gun laws — not even at the library.