Category Archive 'Cambridge Massachusetts'

29 Sep 2017

Cambridge Librarian Returns First Lady’s Books

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Liz Phipps Soeiro, School Librarian, Cambridge, Massachusetts

First Lady Melania Trump, as part of National “Read-a-Book” Day, sent ten Dr. Seuss books complete with White House bookplates bearing the donor’s name to one specially-selected school in each of the 50 states.

One might suppose that the local authority figures would smile at the thought of the small children of their neighborhood enjoying such a gift. But, not in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In Cambridge, School Librarian Liz Phipps Soeiro spurned Melania Trump’s gift responding with a remarkably pretentious and ungracious letter, filled with partisan political venom, published in Horn Book Family Reading, reading in part.

My students were interested in reading your enclosed letter and impressed with the beautiful bookplates with your name and the indelible White House stamp, however, we will not be keeping the titles for our collection. I’d like to respectfully offer my explanation.

* * * * *

My school and my library are indeed award-winning. I work in a district that has plenty of resources, which contributes directly to “excellence.” Cambridge, Massachusetts, is an amazing city with robust social programming, a responsive city government, free all-day kindergarten, and well-paid teachers (relatively speaking — many of us can’t afford to live in the city in which we teach). My students have access to a school library with over nine thousand volumes and a librarian with a graduate degree in library science. Multiple studies show that schools with professionally staffed libraries improve student performance. The American Association of School Librarians has a great infographic on these findings. Many schools around the state and country can’t compete.

Yearly per-pupil spending in Cambridge is well over $20,000; our city’s values are such that given a HUGE range in the socioeconomic status of our residents, we believe that each and every child deserves the best free education possible and are working hard to make that a reality (most classrooms maintain a 60/40 split between free/reduced lunch and paid lunch). …

Meanwhile, school libraries around the country are being shuttered. Cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit are suffering through expansion, privatization, and school “choice” with no interest in outcomes of children, their families, their teachers, and their schools. Are those kids any less deserving of books simply because of circumstances beyond their control? Why not go out of your way to gift books to underfunded and underprivileged communities that continue to be marginalized and maligned by policies put in place by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos? Why not reflect on those “high standards of excellence” beyond only what the numbers suggest? Secretary DeVos would do well to scaffold and lift schools instead of punishing them with closures and slashed budgets.

* * * * *

So, my school doesn’t have a NEED for these books. And then there’s the matter of the books themselves. You may not be aware of this, but Dr. Seuss is a bit of a cliché, a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature. As First Lady of the United States, you have an incredible platform with world-class resources at your fingertips. Just down the street you have access to a phenomenal children’s librarian: Dr. Carla Hayden, the current Librarian of Congress. I have no doubt Dr. Hayden would have given you some stellar recommendations.

Another fact that many people are unaware of is that Dr. Seuss’s illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes. Open one of his books (If I Ran a Zoo or And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, for example), and you’ll see the racist mockery in his art. Grace Hwang Lynch’s School Library Journal article, “Is the Cat in the Hat Racist? Read Across America Shifts Away from Dr. Seuss and Toward Diverse Books,” reports on Katie Ishizuka’s work analyzing the minstrel characteristics and trope nature of Seuss’s characters. Scholar Philip Nel’s new book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books, further explores and shines a spotlight on the systemic racism and oppression in education and literature.

I am honored that you recognized my students and our school. I can think of no better gift for children than books; it was a wonderful gesture, if one that could have been better thought out. Books can be a powerful way to learn about and experience the world around us; they help build empathy and understanding. In return, I’m attaching a list of ten books (it’s the librarian in me) that I hope will offer you a window into the lives of the many children affected by the policies of your husband’s administration. You and your husband have a direct impact on these children’s lives. Please make time to learn about and value them. I hope you share these books with your family and with kids around the country. And I encourage you to reach out to your local librarian for more recommendations.

Warmly,

Liz Phipps Soeiro
School Librarian
Cambridge, MA

What a self-righteous, self-important pill!

Dr. Seuss a racist? His “Mulberry Street” book (read aloud on YouTube) features a child’s imaginative reference to a rajah riding and elephant and a Chinese man who eats with sticks. Wow! How terrible.

23 Jul 2009

Racial Stereotypes in Cambridge

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Barack Obama stooped from the office of the presidency to takes sides in last week’s incident in Cambridge, Massachusetts in which Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a prolific author and African American Studies professor at Harvard, wound up arrested for disorderly conduct.

Gates and a friend were observed by a neighbor trying to force open Gates’s own front door on a street in Cambridge near Harvard. Seeing two black men fiddling with a locked door (and apparently failing to recognize her eminent neighbor), that neighbor summoned the police.

Studying matters African American inevitably promotes hypersensitivity with respect to racial relations, and Mr. Gates predictably responded to the arrival of a police officer with indignation, asking if he was under suspicion “for being a black man in America.”

Gates accused the cop of being a racist, and proceeded to whip out a cell phone and attempt to pull strings with the chief of police. You have no idea who you’re messing with, the mighty Harvard faculty member arrogantly informed the policeman.

Despite all this, merely producing his Harvard ID was sufficient to persuade the officer to leave, but Gates was not content. Bent upon retaliation, he insisted that the cop identify himself, responded to a request to move the discussion outside the house with “yo mama,” and persisted in voicing indignant accusations and abuse.

Not completely surprisingly, in the end, Gates succeeded in getting himself arrested for disorderly conduct.

As this posting of less than a week ago shows, I am not myself inclined to defend exaggerated police sensitivity and amour propre in dealing with the public. In a possible life-or-death situation, that Michigan dispatcher should have taken into account the caller’s emotional distress and overlooked a little bad language.

But, in this case, it is only too clear that Skip Gates himself turned a minor and understandable misunderstanding on the part of a neighbor, where the police were in no way at fault, into his own private melodrama of racial martyrdom. He didn’t get arrested for being black. He got arrested for abusing and trying to intimidate a police officer who was just doing his job.

If Gates had spoken politely to that Cambridge cop and treated the incident with a little understanding, it would all have ended with a handshake and a smile. Gates preferred to manufacture a symbolic national incident. And our supposedly post-racial president can be relied upon to intervene in favor of Professor Gates.

The Boston Globe removed the police report it previously posted (for some reason); but, too bad! it was saved here.

Was Gates profiled? Sure, he was profiled… by his neighbor, who mysteriously could not even recognize him. But, face it, male minority members seen forcing open doors in affluent Cambridge neighborhoods really do fall more logically into the burglars-breaking-in conceptual category than the homeowner-lost-his-keys interpretation even to a not particularly racially prejudiced observer. Minorities really do commit more break ins, and minorities genuinely less frequently own expensive town houses. It is not unfair prejudice to operate prudently on the most probable assumptions.

If that neighbor had taken out her .44, and filled Professor Gates with lead on suspicion, I’d say she leapt to a conclusion. Calling to police to look into what was happening was not any sort of irrevocable act, and normal middle class people can encounter police officers in circumstances featuring minor misunderstandings without feeling victimized.

Stereotypes were obviously at play here, but the most active, hostile, and determinative images were those running furiously inside the head of Henry Louis Gates.


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