SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:
Hey, everybody. Before we get into this episode, we at CODE SWITCH want some feedback from you. We want to hear from people who have been listening to us for a minute and from our new listeners over the last year. So to help us out, you can find a short and anonymous survey at npr.org/podcastsurvey. There’s also going to be a link to this survey in our episode notes. Fill it out. Let us know what you think of our podcast – like, what you really think. It’s a huge help. Thank you.
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MERAJI: I’m Shereen Marisol Meraji.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:
I’m Karen Grigsby Bates, in for Gene.
MERAJI: And this is CODE SWITCH.
GRIGSBY BATES: From NPR.
MERAJI: People could argue that the month of July and the words freedom and independence are synonymous. And I’m not just talking about the United States and the Fourth of July.
GRIGSBY BATES: There’s Bastille Day 10 days later in France. Side note, Shereen – even though the French are all about good food, I think our hot dogs are better.
MERAJI: (Laughter) Are hot dogs good food? Also, I didn’t know that the French ate hot dogs.
GRIGSBY BATES: I think they eat them in secret.
MERAJI: Oh, right.
GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter).
MERAJI: Well, no wonder ours are better. And thanks to our right to freedom of speech, Karen, you are free to have that opinion that American hot dogs are better than French hot dogs.
GRIGSBY BATES: Mais oui.
MERAJI: Don’t at Karen. Anyway, lest we forget, Karen Grigsby Bates, July also marks independence days for a lot of other countries – Algeria, Argentina, the Bahamas, Belarus, Belgium, Burundi, Cape Verde, Colombia, Comoros, Kiribati, Liberia, Malawi, Maldives, Peru, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe – I hope I pronounce that right – Slovakia, the Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Sudan, Vanuatu and Venezuela.
GRIGSBY BATES: Shereen, you really know your liberation or where to find that list.
MERAJI: Oh, well, thank you. It wouldn’t be right to just shout out a couple of colonizers’ independence days, you know what I mean?
GRIGSBY BATES: I think that’s a very fair point.
MERAJI: So during this month, July, because the energy of freedom is exploding like fireworks across the globe, as we just pointed out, CODE SWITCH is focusing all that energy on books that examine the topic of freedom. And this week, we’re going to be highlighting recommendations from the CODE SWITCH team.
GRIGSBY BATES: And, Shereen, when you think about it, freedom – getting it, keeping it, fighting over it – is in so much of our work. I mean, when you cover race, issues of freedom are part of the package, right?
MERAJI: They are.
GRIGSBY BATES: You heard Gene talking with author Kaitlyn Greenidge about her book “Libertie” earlier this month.
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KAITLYN GREENIDGE: You know, I think a lot of times when – especially when we talk particularly about Black freedom and Black liberation, people sort of get to the point of like, well, if there were just no white people around, liberation would come immediately. And I wanted to sort of, like, push back on that.
MERAJI: Last week, I talked to two Latina journalists about the freedom to decide how they identify and all the responsibilities that come with that.
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MARIA GARCIA: It does not feel right for me to identify as a woman of color.
MERAJI: And like I just said, today, we’re going to hear the CODE SWITCH fam’s chosen freedom reads, essays, historical fiction, a memoir and a contemporary romance because we here at CODE SWITCH are nothing if not eclectic. And, Karen, you asked the team all about their choices, so I’m going to let you take it from here.
GRIGSBY BATES: All right. Up first, we’ve got a memoir. Our engagement editor, Natalie Escobar, chose this. Welcome, Natalie.
NATALIE ESCOBAR, BYLINE: Hey, Karen.
GRIGSBY BATES: Natalie, you delved into a very specific facet of freedom.
ESCOBAR: Yes. And I think it’s one that a lot of people are going to be able to relate to, especially after the last year and a half. It’s about the freedom to control the space that you live in. And since I moved just about a month ago, I’ve been thinking about it a lot because I’ve been trying to, you know, decorate and, like, create a space that really makes me feel calm, a place where I can work, a place where I can feel peaceful and, you know, read a book whenever I want to.
GRIGSBY BATES: If you’re able to create a space that does all those things, please let me know. I want tips. OK, Natalie. So what’s your book?
ESCOBAR: So mine is a not-so-famous book by a very famous author, “A House Of My Own” by Sandra Cisneros.
GRIGSBY BATES: Who I’m sure our listeners might know is best known for her work of fiction “The House On Mango Street.”
ESCOBAR: Yes. This one, just as you mentioned, is a memoir. In reading it, I kept underlining, like, every other sentence because I related so much. So like me, little Sandra was a quiet, sensitive kid, you know, the only daughter of a Latino immigrant. And all she wanted was to have some peace and quiet, you know, away from her brothers, away from her family, you know, because growing up, she said that starting in the wee hours of the morning, her entire house was filled with noise.
SANDRA CISNEROS: And my mother, the first thing she did was turn on the radio, and my brothers turned on television sets. And I never could understand that about filling up the silence with electronic noise. I – you know, I had to have absolute quiet, and it forced me to go to bed after everyone else had gone to bed and to be a bit of a vampire as far as my schedule. I did that because when you don’t have a room of your own, you create a time of your own, a space of your own.
GRIGSBY BATES: Or, as the title suggests, a whole house of your own.
ESCOBAR: Exactly. Growing up in Chicago, she wanted one so much that she says that as a young girl, she didn’t dream of her wedding day. She dreamt of having her own house, preferably a house with a window seat where she’d be free to sit and think and write without being interrupted.
CISNEROS: I needed to explore things inside myself. And it wasn’t always that I was writing or drawing or reading. Sometimes it was just being and being in the state of, you know, freefall, of peace. That’s what I wanted. And, you know, my life was full of so many distractions and noise.
ESCOBAR: I really related to that. I’ve also always needed to have those quiet little spaces away from everyone else to think. When I was little and didn’t have my own bedroom, I used to hide in the bathroom or in my mom’s closet so I could sit and read just by myself. I was definitely like Sandra – staying up to read as late as I could without getting in trouble. And I needed that space to think my own thoughts and just begin to discover who I was away from my noisy family.
GRIGSBY BATES: I can totally relate to this (laughter). So Natalie, we know that Sandra Cisneros wound up becoming a famous award-winning author. Obviously, she was able to find some space to write. Did she finally find a house of her own? And what did it feel like?
ESCOBAR: Spoiler alert – she did (laughter). It was a hundred-year-old place in San Antonio, and she was in love.
CISNEROS: I remember every time I unlocked the door or locked it, this feeling of like, wow, I’m paying for this with my pen. Who would have thought?
GRIGSBY BATES: That’s gorgeous. And I’m so glad there was a happy ending to her journey.
ESCOBAR: Well, almost. There is a bit of a twist.
GRIGSBY BATES: Uh-oh (laughter).
ESCOBAR: As the years went by, her love for the house faded, like – you know, just like it might in any relationship. At first, there were fireworks, and then there weren’t. So eventually, she felt trapped by the house. So she sold it.
GRIGSBY BATES: Damn, Sandra, that is cold. You spend your whole life dreaming of a house, and you just up and sell it one day?
ESCOBAR: (Laughter) Yeah, well, she realized that what she had really wanted wasn’t any particular house, but she had wanted the freedom to live in a place that inspired her and let her create.
GRIGSBY BATES: Which I suppose comes with the freedom to move on when a place stops inspiring you, right?
ESCOBAR: Yup. But every once in a while, she goes back to visit her place in San Antonio. And like an ex, she’s reminded of why she loved it and why she dumped it.
GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter).
ESCOBAR: Sandra Cisneros, after all, is not a woman who can be tied down.
CISNEROS: I looked at my house. And my house said to me, aren’t you sorry you sold me? Look at me now. Don’t you wish I was your house? And I said, no, it’s very beautiful to look at you now. You’ve changed. You look different. I don’t even want to see what you look like inside. But, you know, you were my love, and I let you go, and you blessed me, and I’m happy to go move on.
GRIGSBY BATES: Thank you, Natalie.
ESCOBAR: Thank you, Karen.
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MERAJI: That was Natalie Escobar, recommending “A House Of My Own” by Sandra Cisneros. Ooh, that really spoke to me, Karen. You know I’m about to make a very big move. And I am leaving a house that I love, the first house I’ve ever bought and a community that I love, and I hope that is how I feel when I come back to visit the house. Like, you were beautiful while we were together, but now I have moved on, and that’s OK. But right now the thought of leaving the house and you, my neighbor for the last five years and a good friend for almost 20 years – not that we’re going to stop being friends, but…
GRIGSBY BATES: I know.
MERAJI: …That’s giving me a lot of anxiety and making me want to cry. So I’ll leave it there.
GRIGSBY BATES: Not going to cry, not going to cry, not going to cry, not going to cry.
MERAJI: (Laughter) Well, I know that you’re not going to cry, Bates, because you’re not one for crying. But anyway, I appreciated this recommendation from Natalie very much…
GRIGSBY BATES: It was a good choice.
MERAJI: …For the reasons that I just said. Thank you, Natalie. All right, KGB, enough about me. Don’t want to always make it about me.
GRIGSBY BATES: You got another 15 minutes, so knock yourself out.
MERAJI: All right. What do we have up next?
GRIGSBY BATES: Next, we’re moving from the great indoors to the great outdoors with a pick from Christina Cala. Christina’s one of our producers – our newest producer, in fact. And she read a book that’s really about the freedom to feel all the feels, right?
CHRISTINA CALA, BYLINE: Yes, all the feels. The book I want to share today is Ross Gay’s “Book Of Delights.”
GRIGSBY BATES: Ross Gay. He’s a writer and a poet. We had him on the podcast a couple of years ago in our poetry episode, and he was a delight.
CALA: He is such a delight, so delightful. So in addition to writing poetry, Ross Gay is a gardener, and he’s a professor in Bloomington, Ind. And he spent a year writing an essay every day on something that delighted him – well, almost every day. He missed a few. But he started on his birthday, August 1, and ended on that day, too, a year later.
GRIGSBY BATES: A delight a day – I love that idea. It feels like I could really benefit from trying to scrounge up at least one moment of delight or maybe just positivity every day.
CALA: (Laughter) Yes.
GRIGSBY BATES: So Christina, what did Ross Gay find that delighted him?
CALA: He was delighted by so many things and such a beautiful range – so everything from pawpaws, which I learned from him, are the largest fruits native to the United States, to handmade infinity scarves in, like, the most beautiful purple colors, to nicknames, to this very pesky, pesky thing called bindweed.
GRIGSBY BATES: Quick explanatory comma here – bindweed is an invasive plant that can take over your whole garden if you let it. It kind of wraps itself around your other plants, and it digs in deep.
CALA: Yeah, I am not a gardener, but the way he described it and the way other gardeners feel about it…
GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah (laughter).
CALA: …It’s not a good thing. Lore has it that the roots of the plant will strangle your children in their sleep – so not a friend. Gardeners are typically not fans of bindweed. And yet Ross wrote this really beautiful essay called “Bindweed… Delight?” (laughter), which is about being thankful for all of the things in your life, even stuff like pulling up bindweed.
ROSS GAY: (Reading) I do this work often on my hands and knees, scanning my garden beds for bindweed, pulling the straw back over here, lifting the leaves of the collards over there. I noticed the lettuces are untouched by critters, but the cabbages are getting nibbled. The parsley is starting to get thick. The potatoes need mounding, I notice, sliding a long strand of bindweed from the patch. And if I think I’m in a hurry or think I ought to be and quickly walk by to peek at the beds, the teeny bindweed sprouts will sing out to me, stay in the garden. Stay in the garden. And I often oblige, despite my obligations, getting back on my hands and knees, my thumb and forefinger caressing the emergent things free, all of us rooting around for the light.
GRIGSBY BATES: That’s a gorgeous passage. So Christina, how does rooting around in a garden – how does that relate to freedom?
CALA: Great question. Well, he gave me a few different definitions.
GAY: One little definition of freedom I’ll enjoy, which is wondering about joy with other people.
CALA: So wondering about joy with other people. He also told me he thinks of freedom as freedom with. So I understand that to mean that we are free when we share. So he was telling me about this community garden he’s involved with. It’s called the Bloomington Community Orchard. And so much communal work went into making this dream of a garden into reality. And after all of these hours – like, eight months’ worth of planning and planting – he told me about the very first day that it opened.
GAY: I can just remember it plain as day. When I was leaving that day, I was – you know, my eyes were welled up, and I was just so filled up. And I was so profoundly indebted to these people. The feeling is such love for these people that we did this for. And when I say these people, I mean, it’s a lot of people. And, you know, all the potlucks, all the arguments, all the, you know, going to get limestone, all the, you know, talking about what kind of trees it’s going to be, all the this and that, all of that and not agreeing on everything, but figuring out, like, we’re trying to care for this thing that – and we don’t quite know what it is, but it’s beautiful and it’s necessary – that actually felt like – I’ve been thinking about it as joy, but I’m also going to say I think maybe that was an experience of freedom.
CALA: So we just heard two of Ross’s definitions of freedom. But one other thing that I learned from reading his book again – ’cause I’ve read it a few times – and from talking to him was sort of the freedom to be softer in the world.
GRIGSBY BATES: Which requires vulnerability.
CALA: Yeah, it does. And Ross read me another beautiful essay about a delightfully vulnerable and soft thing that he sometimes does, which is when he puts coconut oil on his skin, all over his body.
GAY: When you watch yourself in the mirror, oiling yourself like this, wrapping your arms around yourself, jostling yourself a little, it is easy or easier to see yourself as a child and maybe even a child you really love. It is easy, if you decide it, which might be hard, to let the oiling be of the baby you. Or at least I thought so today, looking at myself, whom I am so often not nice to. But the baby you – you oil until he shines.
GRIGSBY BATES: What a lovely thing to think about – treating yourself with the care you would treat a baby, to baby you.
CALA: Yeah, yeah, it really is. You know, I think it can be really difficult to be that kind to yourself, but maybe it can also be really freeing to love yourself that much and allow that much care. And if you move through the world like that, you really do become softer and more open to things, more open to the heartbreak of, I don’t know, loving a bee that lands on the flower nearby or, like, the really funny sounds your dog makes. And for me, I think it just makes your heart grow, like, three sizes, like “The Grinch” says, like, really easily daily. And actually, Ross talked about this exercise he does with his students where he asks them, what’s something beautiful you saw on your way to class, or something you loved this week? So Karen, I want to ask you that.
GRIGSBY BATES: Actually, I have an answer for you, Christina. There is a nesting dove settled in the eaves over my garage door. And I go to check on her a couple times a day, and she’s just there on her nest, looking down at me calmly. And seeing her do her mama job kind of gives me a little jolt of quiet joy.
CALA: Oh, I love that.
GRIGSBY BATES: So OK. I’ve shared my dove story with you. I want you to share something with me, Christina. What have you seen that gives you joy or that’s beautiful to you?
CALA: So I was camping this weekend, and on Saturday, we got to the beach at the dunes in Michigan just in time for the most beautiful sunset. And I just paused right there on the beach and got to watch all the colors change. And that brought me a lot of love, broke my heart open this weekend.
GRIGSBY BATES: Makes you feel grateful to just, like, be here and breathing on Earth, doesn’t it?
CALA: Yeah. Absolutely, yeah.
GRIGSBY BATES: Well, thank you, Christina, for sharing that lovely interpretation of freedom with us today. I’ll be looking for additional moments of joy and delight as I go about my week.
CALA: Thanks, Karen.
GRIGSBY BATES: Thank you.
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MERAJI: Hey, it’s Shereen. I’m back, and in case you all missed it, Christina Cala’s pick is Ross Gay’s “Book Of Delights.” Let’s take a little break so we can luxuriate in delight for just a little bit longer.
GRIGSBY BATES: Sounds good to me.
MERAJI: Because unfortunately, Karen, freedom is not all coconut oil and nesting doves.
GRIGSBY BATES: It’s not.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “IMITATION OF LIFE”)
FREDI WASHINGTON: (As Peola Johnson) I want to go away. And you mustn’t see me or own me or claim me or anything. I mean, even if you pass me on the street, you’ll have to pass me by.
GRIGSBY BATES: Find out more after the break.
GRIGSBY BATES: Karen.
MERAJI: CODE SWITCH. And we’re back, talking about the books that have helped members of the CODE SWITCH team gain a new perspective on freedom.
GRIGSBY BATES: And now, Shereen, we’re about to talk about one of my favorite genres.
MERAJI: And our podcast regulars will definitely be able to guess what’s coming.
GRIGSBY BATES: Although I do love a bloody mystery or crime thriller, I also really love a good romance. But this actually wasn’t my pick. It’s from our producer, Alyssa Jeong Perry. Hey, Alyssa.
ALYSSA JEONG PERRY, BYLINE: Hey, Karen. Yes, I do love romance, too. I definitely find chick lit, which is also known as modern romance fiction, to be my biggest escapism. Honestly, it has really gotten me through the pandemic, so I was super excited to talk to Helen Hoang. She’s a romance novelist.
HELEN HOANG: I do believe that romance is about escape. It’s about taking you out of your real life and letting you focus on different things and experience things that you don’t in your real life.
GRIGSBY BATES: Helen wrote “The Kiss Quotient,” which, by the way, is a book I also really loved. It was published in 2018, made a huge splash, was on the bestseller list for, like, a long time and is now considered a contemporary classic.
PERRY: I mean, Karen, how could you not love this book? I mean, we’re talking about a biracial Vietnamese American man, Michael. By the way, me and my friends call Asian American dudes BAMs – beautiful Asian males. This BAM falls in love with an awkward, quiet girl who is white. The heroine is named Stella, and she hires the BAM as an escort to teach her a few things. So OK, stay with me. It gets really hot and steamy. I was feeling a little weird rereading it for work, but for the sake of CODE SWITCH, you know, I just had to get it done.
GRIGSBY BATES: You literally took one for the team. I’m glad you made the sacrifice.
PERRY: Oh, no problem.
GRIGSBY BATES: And listeners…
GRIGSBY BATES: No, we are not doing another dramatic reading of those scenes for this episode like we did in our Black Romance one. This book’s a little too spicy. But back up, AJP. We should explain why Stella hires Michael in the first place.
PERRY: Right. OK, so she has autism spectrum disorder and is a little bit socially awkward, so dating really isn’t her forte. But it’s also why I think the book is so good. It really breaks the stigma of what a person with autism is supposed to be and do. Stella isn’t the stereotype we often see portrayed, which is, you know, a robotic, unemotional woman. She really has complex, deep desires, which is something Helen, the author, began to understand as she wrote the book.
HOANG: I didn’t even know about those expectations around autism because autism was still – it was kind of new to me. I was only diagnosed, you know, five years ago. But after I wrote the book, I was so glad that I did that, that I – you know, I wrote autistic people having sex. And I couldn’t be prouder.
PERRY: Oh, Helen. That’s right. Helen, the author, was diagnosed with ASD, autism spectrum disorder, just like Stella, which is really why I think the book is so different from many other romance novels. You really get into the heroine Stella’s mindset.
GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah, I love how descriptive Helen writes about certain things that make Stella uncomfortable, like being in a noisy, crowded place, or how certain fabrics or even the seams or tags in clothes irritate her skin, and when she began to accept herself being on the spectrum – because she didn’t at first – that happens to be when Stella’s heart just cracked open to love.
PERRY: Well, Helen told me she wrote this book for women like her and Stella.
HOANG: I hope that other people – you know, even if they’re not on the spectrum – that they can come to that same self-realization and just free themselves from their own perception of what they need to be and accept themselves.
PERRY: By the way, Stella wasn’t the only character who taught Helen something about herself. That was definitely the case with the other protagonist as well. Remember the BAM, Michael?
GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah, who could forget the BAM, Michael? He’s pretty gorgeous.
PERRY: Yes. Helen writes a lot about Michael’s dad potentially stealing family money and then eventually abandoning the family. So writing that felt close to home for her.
HOANG: Especially since my father is (laughter) also not – he’s made some bad decisions in his life, and I think also to accept that I love him, even though not everything he does is good, was also freeing.
GRIGSBY BATES: I’m glad she feels that way, Alyssa. It might encourage others with difficult relationships with their parents to accept or forgive their flaws and maybe define the relationship that they really want.
PERRY: That’s true. Also, what I think is really cool about this book is that it opened more doors for more central characters who have all sorts of life experiences and identities.
GRIGSBY BATES: Including characters who are neuroatypical, like the sisters in Talia Hibbert’s wonderful series about the Brown girls.
PERRY: I got to read those.
GRIGSBY BATES: Oh, they’re fabulous. You’ll love them. Thanks, Alyssa.
PERRY: Thanks so much, Karen.
MERAJI: That was producer Alyssa Jeong Perry talking about “The Kiss Quotient” by Helen Hoang. And we’ve saved the best for last. That’s your pick, Karen Grigsby Bates.
GRIGSBY BATES: So Shereen, my book is historical fiction, and it’s written by two people, one Black, one white. They became friends as they were writing this book. They didn’t know each other before. It’s called “The Personal Librarian,” and I’m going to let one of the authors, Victoria Christopher Murray, describe it for you. She’ll be followed by her co-author and new friend, Marie Benedict.
VICTORIA CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: The book is about Belle da Costa Greene, the daughter of Richard T. Greener, an activist and the first Black graduate from Harvard University. But at the same time, she was J.P. Morgan’s personal and very powerful librarian. The only thing was in his world, in J.P. Morgan’s world, no one knew that she was Black.
MARIE BENEDICT: And Belle had to hide her Black identity and pass as white in order to not just move about the society in which J.P. Morgan lived, but in order to inhabit a white identity in a very segregated world. She lived in the Gilded Age, but it’s not often discussed how the Gilded Age was actually really the beginning of the age of segregation and Jim Crow laws. And so as a result, Belle had to suppress not just her identity but also this rich heritage of equality that she had, you know, learned growing up with both of her parents.
MERAJI: So explanatory comma here for the Gilded Age – I know I needed one. The Gilded Age marks the time after the Civil War to the turn of the century and the United States’ transformation into a booming industrial economy where big-name white families like the Carnegies and the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts and Morgans – of, you know, J.P. Morgan, the Morgans – they were basically running things.
GRIGSBY BATES: Right. The captains of industry – or robber barons, as they’re sometimes called – who made these fortunes were tremendously wealthy, Shereen, and they loved to show off their wealth in a number of ways. J.P. Morgan collected rare manuscripts and books and paintings, things that showed the power of the written word.
MERAJI: Hence the title of the book that you’re recommending, “The Personal Librarian.” You said this book is historical fiction. I know J.P. Morgan is definitely a real person. Are Belle and her father, Richard, also real people?
GRIGSBY BATES: Oh, definitely. Belle da Costa Greene started life as Belle Marion Greener. She was from a comfortable Washington, D.C., family that would have been described as colored back in the day. They moved around for Richard’s job and eventually ended up in New York. But at the turn of the century in 1905, when her mother decided the family should pass as white to go further in the world, her father, who was a contemporary of W.E.B. Du Bois and an ardent race man, left the family. He was just disgusted, and he violently disagreed with his wife’s decision.
MERAJI: This is a little bit of a callback to last week’s episode, too, where we talked about how various groups of people in the United States claim to be white so they could access the rights and privileges only available to white people. But back to what you were saying, Belle’s dad, Richard, refused to pass, but her mom…
GRIGSBY BATES: Genevieve.
MERAJI: …Genevieve, thought, you know, it was a better option for the family, so much so that she let her husband go. Wow.
GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah. After the split, Genevieve never spoke of Richard again to the children, which was hard for Belle because she adored her father. He’d encouraged her interest in art and in history and all kinds of intellectual pursuits. But Genevieve got her way, and Belle Marion Greener became Belle da Costa Greene. The da Costa, Shereen, was added in reference to a non-existent Portuguese ancestor. That’s how she explained her olive or dusky complexion.
MERAJI: All right. What part of this story is historical, and what part of this story is fiction?
GRIGSBY BATES: So to answer your question, Shereen, Belle was very real, and so was her family. But this is a fictional imagining of what went through her head while she was passing.
GRIGSBY BATES: You know, in a lot of books and movies about passing, pale-skinned Black people wanted to be white, so they passed, like that old movie “Imitation Of Life.”
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “IMITATION OF LIFE”)
LOUISE BEAVERS: (As Delilah Johnson) What’s my little baby got on her mind?
WASHINGTON: (As Peola Johnson) I want to go away.
BEAVERS: (As Delilah Johnson) Go away? Go where, Peola?
WASHINGTON: (As Peola Johnson) I mean – by that I mean, I want to go away. And you mustn’t see me or own me or claim me or anything. I mean, even if you pass me on the street, you’ll have to pass me by.
CLAUDETTE COLBERT: (As Beatrice Pullman) No, Peola.
WASHINGTON: (As Peola Johnson) Oh, I know it’s terrible of me, Miss Bea. But you don’t know what it is to look white and be Black. You don’t know. I can’t go on this way any longer.
MERAJI: So dramatic. If Gene was here, he’d be rolling his eyes at that line very hard.
GRIGSBY BATES: Yes.
MERAJI: I’m sure that was quite an emotional moment for an audience in the 1930s when this movie came out.
GRIGSBY BATES: Probably.
MERAJI: I haven’t seen this movie. But I don’t think it hits the same in 2021 (laughter).
GRIGSBY BATES: I think you’re probably right. Marie Benedict says she and Victoria saw Belle da Costa Greene as a more complicated case than Peola’s, though. They believe Belle was passing not ’cause she wanted to be white, but so she could exercise her freedom to go as far as she could as a curator and what I guess we’d call today an influencer. But, Marie Benedict says, that freedom – it came at a cost.
BENEDICT: There were so many sacrifices that went along with passing that weren’t – we felt really needed to be explored. Most of all, Belle had to give up the idea of having a family of her own.
MERAJI: Wow – because if she married someone who was white, she couldn’t guarantee that her children would be as light as she was, or even look “Portuguese.”
GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah.
MERAJI: I put that in…
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES AND SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI: Quotes.
GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter).
MERAJI: So maybe she’d be found out.
GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah, exactly. So Belle stayed single. She became the toast of the town. She was seen at all the best parties, all the important openings and auditions. She was written up in the society pages in New York because she was J.P. Morgan’s personal representative.
And nobody was going to cross J.P. Morgan. Some of his rivals, like Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller, were richer. But nobody was more powerful.
MERAJI: So this story, “The Personal Librarian,” really takes a look at the rise of an ambitious Black woman who was passing because it really was the only way she could have this amazing job – a dream job building and curating an entire library, where money is no object. Your boss is filthy rich.
GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah.
GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah. Belle’s success enabled her family – well, her mother and her siblings – to live comfortably as white people. They depended on her substantial income. If Belle had come out as colored, all that would have evaporated.
MERAJI: Instead, she lived hiding in plain sight for decades and was estranged from her Black father, who was out there fighting for racial equity and equality. That is a lot. And I’m sure she must have been wondering the entire time if she was going to get caught, found out.
GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah. Belle was the librarian at the Morgan, as it’s now known, for more than four decades. It was for 43 years, I believe, she presided over the collections. She stayed on after J.P. Morgan died. And after Morgan’s death, she got Jack Morgan, J.P.’s son, to agree to donate his father’s library to the city of New York. So visitors and scholars and bibliophiles, even you and me, Shereen, can enjoy this amazing collection – a collection she amassed and shaped on his behalf. She died in 1950.
MERAJI: Wow – without anyone finding her out.
GRIGSBY BATES: Because, in part, Belle burned her personal papers before her death, probably to keep her secrets safe.
Marie Benedict says she thinks she knows why Belle was willing to walk a tightrope for all those years.
BENEDICT: We kind of think of the public Morgan Library as the legacy that she was protecting. It was the one thing that made all this sacrifice really worth it.
GRIGSBY BATES: You know, Shereen, there were a lot of places in New York that weren’t officially segregated but that did not welcome Black and brown people – lot of hotels, stores – lot of places. I don’t know if the Morgan was one of those places or if they welcomed people of color into the library in Belle’s lifetime. But maybe Belle’s field of vision was further in the future than that. So she burned her papers and died as a white woman. But now that this book has revealed her true race…
I’m wondering if you all think that your book, by telling Belle’s story, may free her in death in ways that she couldn’t be freed when she was actually alive.
MURRAY: That’s what we think we did. You just summed it up. We think we get to tell the truth when she had to lie. That’s the thing that makes me so happy – that I hope she’s smiling, that now she’s able to still have all of her accomplishments laid out there. But now everyone knows that she was Belle Marion Greener, the daughter of the great Richard T. Greener.
MERAJI: What a story.
GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah.
MERAJI: Karen, I know you mentioned “Imitation Of Life,” which I’ve never seen. But this story, as you’ve been telling it to me, is totally playing out like a movie in my head. Rashida Jones (laughter) is playing Belle. Donald Sutherland is J.P. Morgan. I’m not sure yet who is Richard T. Greener in my head.
GRIGSBY BATES: I am.
GRIGSBY BATES: Roger Guenveur Smith…
GRIGSBY BATES: …Would be a perfect Richard T. Greener.
MERAJI: Well, there you have it. People at the movie studios, if you haven’t already optioned the book…
GRIGSBY BATES: And Netflix, Amazon.
MERAJI: (Laughter). It’s called “The Personal Librarian” by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray. Thank you so much, Bates. That was fascinating.
GRIGSBY BATES: You’re welcome.
MERAJI: And that’s our show. You can find the books we’ve talked about here and a few more on our website, npr.org/codeswitch.
And don’t forget, we want to hear your honest feedback on our podcast. So go to npr.org/podcastsurvey to fill out an anonymous survey. It takes just a few minutes. And it really helps us out. Check out the link in our episode notes as well.
GRIGSBY BATES: This episode was produced by Alyssa Jeong Perry and edited by Leah Donnella. And shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam – Kumari Devarajan, Jess Kung, LA Johnson, Natalie Escobar, Christina Cala, Steve Drummond, Sam Yellowhorse Kesler. Our intern is Carmen Molina Acosta. Gene will be back soon.
MERAJI: I’m Shereen Marisol Meraji.
GRIGSBY BATES: And I’m Karen Grigsby Bates.
GRIGSBY BATES: See you.
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