A Respite on the Farm: Langston Hughes Library Plays Role as Culture Keeper. (Black History Month)

Article excerpt

Nestled on an eastern Tennessee farm once owned by Roots author Alex Haley is the Langston Hughes Library, a private, noncirculating, 5,000-volume reference collection and reading room dedicated in 1999. The library supports the mission of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF) and its companion organization, the Black Community Crusade for Children. Named in honor of the Harlem Renaissance poet/novelist (1902-1967), the library is used for research, reflection, and inspiration by children's advocates, spiritual leaders, educators, civil-rights leaders, authors, illustrators, publishers, scholars, and college and high school students who come to the 157-acre retreat in Clinton, Tennessee, for training and leadership development.

In order to help fulfill its mission, the CDF, a nonprofit organization founded by Marian Wright Edelman in 1973, purchased the Alex Haley farm to serve as an incubator for the CDF's "Leave No Child Behind" movement. It is used as a conference and training center for spiritual, character, and leadership development; interdisciplinary and interracial communication; and intergenerational mentoring. To date, more than 11,000 people have been guests at the farm. Housed in a "smoke-free, drug-free, hate-free" environment, the farm also includes six guesthouses, a business center/storage building, a ropes course, a large pond, and a gazebo. In the future, CDF plans to add an interfaith chapel and Outward Bound training camp for children's advocates.

The library is housed in a former 1860s cantilever barn--in which a standard-looking shed is perched above two rough log cribs--that was restored and redesigned as a contemporary sky-lit reading room by Maya Lin, the architect of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. It includes the Maya Angelou and John Hope Franklin Reading Room named in honor of the poet/novelist and historian, respectively. The sitting area is named in honor of civil rights heroine Rosa Parks.

"Building the library is the fulfillment of a lifetime full of dreams," Barnes and Noble Chief Executive Officer Len Riggio said at the 1999 dedication. Riggio and his wife, Louise, donated the money to build the library. "Not only does it satisfy the donor's normal inclination to give something back, but also for me it appeals to my desire to make something happen. Indeed, this library on this historic site promises to make something happen for future generations of young intellectuals and scholars. Here, many will shape their thoughts, then add their own voices to the rich culture of the African-American experience."

The library includes a specialized collection of children's literature, works by authors and illustrators of African descent, and about black experiences, child advocacy, African-American culture, fine arts, history, literature, spirituality, the Civil Rights Movement with particular attention to the role of women, and the history of nonviolent social protest. Special highlights of the library holdings include CDF's publications, the Freedom School collection used in coordination with an annual summer program for children, federal government studies on child welfare dating back to the early 1900s, and rare and signed first editions of poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks and Nikki Giovanni as well as many other authors and illustrators. The library has begun acquiring original manuscripts of seminal children's works, including Hush by Jacqueline Woodson and Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York's African Burial Ground by Joyce Hansen.

In October 2000 I was invited, along with 40 others, to attend a CDF Langston Hughes Library Roundtable meeting of black children's book authors and illustrators, scholars, librarians, editors, and publishers. The energy generated by the participants and CDF staff was life-changing. When I left the two-and-a-half-day discussion of children's literature and how each of us could play a part in CDF's movement to "Leave No Child Behind," I was renewed and spiritually refreshed. …