Tag Archives: public libraries

“Growing Up in the Other Atlantic City” and “Why We Chose This Way” by Turiya S.A. Raheem

Here I go again, writing about books I didn’t read, on the excuse that I met the author. Turiya Raheem gave a talk on her recently published book “Why We Chose This Way” at the Northfield (New Jersey) Public Library the first weekend in December.

The original announcement of Raheem’s book talk attracted some negative attention in Northfield. A few people objected to a public lecture by an African American Muslim woman writing ABOUT African American Muslim women. The Library declined to change its plan, and the lecture was very well attended – standing room only.

Raheem, who teaches English at Atlantic Cape Community College, first attracted media attention after HBO aired the made-for-TV period crime drama “Boardwalk Empire”, starting in 2009 and running for five seasons. The book “Boardwalk Empire” by Nelson Johnson had been followed by “The Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City”. Reporters wanted to talk to people who remembered the Northside in its best days, when it was a hub of African American culture, a miniature Harlem, perhaps. After Raheem was interviewed extensively, she realized she had a potential book in her sights, and “Growing Up in the Other Atlantic City” emerged.

In her lecture, Raheem said that she found out that she loves the genre of creative non-fiction. (Readers of this blog may remember that I’ve expressed uncertainty how it is defined.) She decided to exercise her skills on her own demographic niche – she is an African American woman who converted to Islam as an adult.

The first requirement for this writing project was that she guarantee complete anonymity to the women she interviewed. She did this by changing names, locations, numbers of children, and other details, and by sometimes combining the stories of more than one woman. Her goal was to “normalize” these women, who may be thought of as different or exotic by those who don’t know them. She interviewed 30 women, all over age 50. Only one had been born into a Muslim family. Clearly these women find their lives richly satisfying.

The conversation at the lecture covered many topics. Muslim women make various decisions about their distinguishing dress, which makes them so much more conspicuous than Muslim men. This is a matter of choice and custom, not religious requirement. Raheem pointed out that only a limited number of practices are universal in Islam – the “pillars” like prayer and pilgrimage, and abstaining from alcohol or pork. All the rest (much of what we see) is cultural and depends on culture of origin.

Certain themes ran through the discussion – social justice, social class and the nature of community. Community and sisterhood seem chief among the reasons these American converts to Islam are content in their chosen identities.

I’m very glad I got to meet Turiya Raheem, and I’m looking forward to reading her books, which are available on Amazon.

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A Trip to the Library

Okay, I admit it. I have gone to the Library less frequently since getting my Kindle. There isn’t actually any library on my daily orbit. The two public libraries (branches of our County Library System) are located 2 miles west and 5 miles east of home. Each has its charms, and my workplace (a public college) also has a Library.

The Library to the east of me is a big, busy place with an odd history. It started as a Township library full of donated books in the municipal building, but that burned down around 1982. Whatever was salvaged was moved to the basement of the Catholic school nearby. That space had no windows and lots of overhead pipes. It was very easy bang my head. The stairs were treacherous, but this was before ADA. Some time around then, the Township joined the County Library System, which promised an upgrade. The first upgrade was a rented “office” type space. It was so small, if I saw more than six cars in the parking lot, I just drove on. I knew the Library would be uncomfortably crowded. There was just one table to use for story hours, discussion groups, etc. My prime memory of this site is that I discovered the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. It was in the adult fiction section, but I read it to my kids. Very funny! A few years later, the County delivered on it’s promise of a new building. It’s beautiful, with a BIG children’s section and plenty of space for high schoolers to do homework. Literacy volunteers confer with their clients. A small auditorium is used for public events, like flu shots. Looking at the new Library, I felt that maybe our Township was finally a “real place”.

The Library located west of me is smaller. It’s been open for about 10 years, but the building might be 80 years old. It was built as a bank. I don’t know how many years it was closed. I love it! Reflecting the community, many titles are in Spanish. The “new arrivals” shelves are so crowded that there’s just one chair on each side, for the browsers of new fiction and new non-fiction. The computers are located in the old bank vault. I see kids working on homework. It’s a cheerful place, though a tight fit.

The third library, at the college where I work, is centrally located and reasonably convenient for everyone except the employees in security and facilities, where I labor. Driving over is a bad bet (parking issues) and sometimes I’m not in the mood for the 20 minute walk. But it’s worth it when I get there! I haunt the New Arrivals shelves and the Recreational Reading section. The Library has been expanded three times since I arrived in 1975, and it has been colonized by various offices and academic centers. But it’s got the stacks and tables and quiet atmosphere I enjoy. Like most colleges and many libraries, the place is having an identity crisis. What does it mean to be a library in the internet age? Whatever happened to “shhhh…”? Can millenials be separated from their coffee? What do students read? DO they read? Should the Library be transformed into a “learning commons”, like some universities have done? My friends on the staff tell me that Library use is down, and if people don’t start using the Recreational Reading section, it will disappear. I obligingly take at least six books every time I stop in, even if I know I won’t read them all.

So those are my libraries. Each is important to me! The Kindle is great, can’t beat it for travel, but it’s not going to take over my reading life.