BOOK OF THE MONTH: Black Orphan in Illinois
Our Human Library Book of the Month is a series of portraits of our books created with the purpose of offering our readers a chance to understand the diversity and variety within our bookshelves around the world. It also provides unique insights into the motivations and values of being a book and volunteering for our organization.
As the world is going through its crises leading to isolation and polarisation, it is more important than ever to stay connected and face our differences. Fortunately, the Human Library is still able to make this happen through our online reading events. This month, we have a conversation with Tanessa, who has done many online events this year under the titles ‘Black Orphan’ and ‘Pentecostal’.
Titles blending together
“Every time I do a reading – especially now, being a virtual book – I actually seem to recognize more titles within myself,” Tanessa says. “There’s just lots of things that I learn about myself, just by being a book.”
She usually starts her story explaining how her foster experience was a-typical:
“Summary in a nutshell: I was in foster care. My mother abandoned me and my two sisters. She eventually passed away when I was seven. My situation was not stereotypical. Being an orphan, I only lived in one home and I lived with my siblings. I went from my mother’s house, to college, married my husband and we got our own home. I did not experience the moving around and going to different schools that is typical for foster care. I share with people that me being an orphan did not define where I was going to go in life.”
From this story, several titles emerge. “Under the umbrella of Black Orphan I can also talk about being black,” Tanessa explains. Other times, she talks more about being in an interracial marriage or being Pentecostal. That is why she calls herself an ‘interactive book’:
“I’m an interactive book. I can see the burning questions on reader’s faces and then I’m like, go ahead!” Depending on the reader, she steers her story in different directions: “I navigate around the individual.”
Never thought the Human Library would affect me like this
Questions from readers can evoke unexpected emotions sometimes. Tanessa experienced this as well:
“I have a lot to share, and I didn’t realise that I did. This is the craziest memory that I had with the Human Library. We were training for a corporate event. This was before I even did corporate or had any experience. I never thought that I would be affected by the Human Library as much as I have been. I was sitting across from a woman and she was reading me. She asked me: ‘How did you being an orphan affect your daughters?’ and I started to talk but I just couldn’t. I just started crying,” Tanessa shares.
“After talking with my publisher, I understood that the reason why I was emotional about that was because it does affect them, and I used it against them to discipline them. And I never really thought about that until this woman was reading me and asked me that question.”
“So, with every reading I learn something new about myself through the questions my readers ask,” she concludes.
Black Lives Matter
Tanessa has noticed an increase of questions about being black since the recent Black Lives Matter protests:
“I ask my readers how much focus they want on that, and usually they want it to be 90% of that subject. It’s up to the readers! Sometimes I am the only opportunity for them to hear our side. I could be the only person to illustrate to them that injustice towards black folks is real. I could be the only person to tell them ‘no matter how privileged a black person can be, they are going to be reminded that they are black and it is not always good’. I walk out of my door as Tanessa. And sometimes, Tanessa is the black person to someone, not just that lady.”
In relation to Black Lives Matter, she wants to tell people to listen to Black people’s experiences.
“If a cop is bad and pulls someone over with bad intentions… how would a white person know? Are they following the cops to see that? The first time I realized black people weren’t crying wolf was when I was 23, because I had never seen it first-hand until it happened to me,” she says, explaining what happened.
“Three police officers pulled me over when I was seven months pregnant. I was stopped in my mother-in-law’s driveway and because my mother in law is white, they thought I had no reason to be at these white people’s house. They emptied the contents of my car, tore out the dashboard, but wouldn’t knock on the door.”
The best question Tanessa got so far was also related to race:
“One reader asked me if I’d rather be white, because of all the adversities that black people face. I wanted to say, ‘hell no’, but I didn’t! I just started listing off all the benefits of being black.”
She laughs as she explains why she especially appreciated that question:
“I thought it was an awesome and brave question. Because it was a challenge. Who is going to ask that question in real life other than on virtual zoom, a million miles away? Who’s going to dare?”
The Power of the Human Library
When she first became a book, she had different expectations of the Human Library than now.
“As a new book I wanted to sit across white people and say you know what you’re doing. I wanted to be an angry black woman telling them don’t do this, don’t do this and please don’t do that. But that didn’t happen,” Tanessa explains. Now, she has learned how to unjudge the reader as well:
“I don’t want to generalize the readers. I want them to hear what my experience is. I don’t want to come off as ‘hey I’m black you’re white, I’m going to tell you what you’re doing wrong’, that’s not going to help anything. I just want them to know that some of these things are really going on!”
Over time, Tanessa says she has learned the power of dialogue:
“You can’t make laws to make other people understand and be kind to you. There is no law in the world that can stop what is in someone’s heart. But knowing someone and hearing someone may make that difference.”