While I was visiting the Richard M. Daley Branch, I was struck by the student work. In particular, there were several posters with #saytheirname written on it along with the never ending lists of Black victims of police brutality. The Say Their Names campaign seeks to shift the narrative of victims of police brutality by giving voice to the families of victims. It was a compelling installment at the library that I didn’t really notice until I was walking out even though the posters were hanging throughout the library. It really made me think and reflect on the power given to the youth in this library as they seek to speak out about the injustices in their communities and across the country. Ok, I will come back to this in a moment.
I was also struck by the large dictionary sitting open in the back of the library. When I was a child I remember that my parents had a HUGE dictionary, supposedly exhaustive, that was probably 8–10 inches thick…maybe even larger. I loved browsing it! I know, I was a nerd. Most libraries I have been in, in Chicago or anywhere, set the dictionary in a prominent place, in full view, and open (I tried to look up this practice, but ask google anything about a dictionary and it just gives you definitions of other words in the search). I had a college professor who once said that the dictionary should be the second most important book in our lives, next to the Bible. I understood his point, I guess, that a good command of language gives us access to power. Well, ironically I have spent the past several years of my professional career debunking the “dictionary” because the power to prescribe and legislate language should not be left in the hands of Merriam-Webster or even Oxford University. Rather, that power lies within each one of us. So, I am always a little bit tickled when I walk past the ancient tomb where words go to die in definitiveness and find myself scoffing and uttering words under my breath like “yaaaasssss,” “facebooked,” and “bad hombres.” Call me a rebel or call me a scholar, but either way, my words can never be inscribed on the pages of mass produced canons. They are birthed out of specific moments and intertwined with space and time.
Ok, so, back to the youth. I think this juxtaposition of language and literacy is particularly powerful. On the one hand, there is the dictionary, the EMPIRE of language, the catalogue of words set “harmlessly” on a shelf. On the other hand are youth literacies producing social movements and tying in personal experiences to hundreds, even millions, of people who have suffered injustice at the hands of EMPIRES. Herein lies the danger of assuming neutrality in language. Something as “neutral” as a dictionary obtains severe power by the orchestration of control by a particular group of people, in this case, published, elite, English speakers. The dictionary IS a tool of control. It IS a tool of empire. It gets to decide whose words count and what they mean. So, while the dictionary sits on a shelf, open, as if it was the book-of-life itself, posters and art pieces hang all around evidencing the resistance and power of our youth. I could not be more proud of the library than to allow this exchange to take place. The literature on the shelves, though important, cannot compare to the literature we live. Our youth have a voice, and their voice is every bit as powerful as the voices on the shelves. The authors of the books on the shelves have names. We see them. We read them. We hear them. We say them. But so many other names are forgotten. It sometimes takes youths to remind us that language is power. We need to see, read, hear, and #saytheirnames:
John Crawford III
And many more…