Charles Ogletree on Race, Reading, and the Presumption of Guilt

Posted Friday, August 20, 2010 - 10:48
Charles Ogletree

Charles Ogletree, Harvard Law School professor and founder of Harvard Law’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, serves as one of several celebrity honorary co-chairs of the American Library Association’s Spectrum Presidential Initiative, an effort to raise $1 million in scholarships for minority students pursuing a master’s degreee in library and information science. Ogletree issued a statement after the July 2009 arrest of his Harvard colleague, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., in his home became a major news story about the nexus of politics, police power, and race. That incident became fodder for Ogletree’s latest book, The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates and Race, Class, and Crime in America (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). After the death of Senator Ted Kennedy, Ogletree’s name was suggested as one of the possible appointees for Kennedy’s seat as a “placeholder” until a special election could be held. Ogletree taught both President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama while they were students at Harvard and has remained close to the president throughout his political career. Ogletree talked with American Libraries’ Associate Editor Pamela A. Goodes on June 25, at the start of the ALA Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. Watch the full interview on AL Focus.

American Libraries: Why did you agree to lend your name to the Spectrum Presidential Initiative?

CHARLES OGLETREE: Libraries have been the savior of my life. From the time I was a little kid, reading books at my local county library, I’ve always appreciated the fact that in order to lead, you need to know how to read; if you are able to read, it can then enhance your chances in life. Although a lot of things can rescue young people from the challenges of society in the 21st century, there is nothing that makes you stronger than to have an agile mind, good judgment, and a rich resource of experiences through reading. The library is a sanctuary for those who want to make a big impact on our society.

As the author of many opinion pieces on race, how important is it for library staffs to reflect the diverse melting pot that we see daily? It is critical. If you think about the history of libraries, it’s always been influenced by those who can contribute something that others should read; and if you don’t have all the people at the table who can make those important critical decisions, we’ll miss James Baldwin, we’ll miss Toni Morrison, and we’ll miss the incredible work that so many prominent African Americans have written over the years. We also will miss a sense that our children too, can be great if they get a chance to read some of the great authors who made incredible contributions over the centuries.

What role have libraries played in your life in your road to becoming a Harvard Law professor? When I wrote my book, All Deliberate Speed, I included a chapter about growing up in my hometown in Merced [California], which was segregated because of the fact that poor blacks and Latinos lived on the south side of the tracks, and, whites, in large part, lived on the north side of the tracks. But we had a great public library on the south side that I would attend regularly and it became a competition: The more I read, the more stars I would get; the more stars I would get, the more excited I would be; the more excited I became, the more I wanted to explore what reading could do. It actually took me away from a life of poverty and despair. I forgot for a moment that I was poor, my parents didn’t finish high school, and my grandparents were one generation away from slavery. I imagined, through reading, that I was somewhere else, doing something else. Not to escape the travesty—but, the luxury of reading and learning, that life had many things to offer—I just had not explored that.

Can you recall a favorite librarian, or a library experience, that touched you in some way? It was the librarian at our county library, which was not far from my house. I would walk there and she’d look forward to me coming every day and she’d say, "Oh, Charles, you’re back! I have four new books for you.” That she was thinking of me not as a black kid, or the kid on welfare, or a kid whose mother was struggling with the fact that my father was not there and trying to raise six children. She saw me as an individual who loved reading and she was excited. It was the excitement of that librarian that made such a big difference. It also ended up playing a bigger part in my life as I went on to high school.

Do you think that the role of school and public libraries is just as important as those in the world of academia? They’re even more important because people in academia have resources, they have access to power, and they can usually affect the aspects of things and make a difference in the lives of their students. Public libraries are for everybody. It's the idea of leveling the playing field—leveling them up so that no matter the class, race, gender, or religion, there should be no barrier between you and the opportunity to learn. If we talk about a public library that serves the needs of the people, it has to expose them to all the elements and funding of resources that are critical to the future of public libraries.

If you could get the ear of President Obama or First Lady Michelle Obama on the topic of library funding, what would you tell them? Very simple. I would say, Barack and Michelle, as I have said for 30 years, you know what is most important in your children’s lives is education, and how will they get that education? Through reading. The same benefits that you had that helped you come from a situation where you had a teenage mother who was white and a father who was absent from your life, yet, reading and learning changed that life for you. And, Michelle, going through the challenges of a father who suffered and died much too young from multiple sclerosis, but who was committed to make sure his children, Michelle and Craig, went on to college at Princeton and both obtained advanced degrees. That’s because somebody cared to lift them up.

If there is a mandate coming from the White House, either from the President, First Lady, or both, it is that in order to lead, you must read. In order to have the chance to read, you should not be barred from the opportunity because of race, gender, class, or any other factor. So, to the Obamas, it is to give to others what you have had and give them the same chance whether they’re 3, 5, or 15 years old, that when they have the chance to formatively think about it and say yes, I, too, can be the President of the United States; yes, I, too, can be a tenured professor at a great university, a CEO, a surgeon, or educator. An education connected with reading is what would empower these young people, and nurturing and mentoring from those of us who have had success from mentoring and nurturing from others should also be considered and be a part of our mission from the White House to every house throughout America.

Anything else you’d like to add? There are far too many libraries today that are not open seven days a week or at night. We have 24-hour jail service and only limited library service. We have our priorities wrong. If we want to save our children, save them from themselves, or save them from a sometimes hostile environment, we have to give them free public access to information to learn, to critically argue issues, to understand the importance of nurturing and developing into mature human beings. The library, in a sense, is a mirror to our success as a society. Without it, we fail. With it, embracing it, empowering it, supporting it, and encouraging it, we can only succeed.

Photo credit: Curtis Compton, Cognotes

Column: