The question of which books are allowed in Florida schools led activists and artists to create a library of their own.
The Little Free Diverse Library was unveiled Wednesday morning at Yellow House Arts in Riverside near the Cork Arts District. It was the first of 20 libraries that will feature books by Black and brown authors who tackle a variety of subjects.
The first little library honored Bryant Rollins. The longtime Jacksonville resident was a columnist at the Boston Globe who shifted into consulting and training corporate clients on the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Rollins’ widow, Shirley Stetson, was at Yellow House on Wednesday.
“We learned across cultures what it was like. The culture of men, the culture of religions, the culture of gender, the cultures of gender identity, the cultures of music, all of those things,” Stetson said. “And we told everyone that culture is the river of life.”
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When she and Rollins moved here, in 1997, they learned their way around the River City through two ways: visiting libraries and churches. The latter, Stetson said, showed the division in the city. The former provided access to the knowledge that is possible through books.
The topic has taken on urgency since Florida ordered school districts to submit all instructional materials to media specialists for review. Hundreds of titles have been removed from library shelves during the process.
The discussion over books, Stetson believes, is about control. She notes parental guidance “needs to be there, always” when it comes to the books children read — and that is not something that should be dictated by school districts or governments.
“Control is a huge issue. Knowledge should have no controllers in a sense,” Stetson said. “When we are little, we need to be protected from violence. But, by the time a child is in school — in the third grade — they know some really bad words that I don’t want them to know, but they know them already. I can’t control that. What I can do is talk to my children about what’s good and what’s bad because values don’t get formed in school, or shouldn’t, they should be formed by the family.”
Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” a book that has yet to be approved by the Duval County School District, is among the books in the first library. So are titles by Yaa Gyasi, Princeton professor Eddie Glaude, Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai and others.
Hope McMath, Yellow House’s founder, says other boxes will celebrate authors like Morrison, Amy Tan and Zora Neale Hurston. Civil rights leaders like Standing Bear, Cesar Chavez and John Lewis also will be memorialized.
Stetson was in awe when she saw the back of the little box that stood underneath an oak tree and next to the sidewalk along King Street. The blue background featured a painting of her husband, who died last May at 84.
Jacksonville-based muralist Jarrett Walker painted the first box. Stetson says Walker never met her late husband but captured him perfectly.
904Ward worked with Yellow House to fund the boxes. Its CEO, Kimberley Allen, says books allow readers to enjoy, appreciate and respect the experiences of others.
Other boxes will be located in parts of Jacksonville that McMath considers “book deserts” because there is neither a bookstore nor branch of the Jacksonville Public Library within walking distance. She says there are plans to unveil boxes near Ken Knight Drive in Northwest Jacksonville and in the Lackawanna neighborhood.
“If you want to know the value of something, pay attention to how it is regulated,” Allen said. “Our community and our state deserve this. They deserve books.”