Reading and racial justice during the coronavirus


Caroline Bartels

On March 9th when Dr. Kelly announced we were closing early because of a possible case of COVID-19, for me it felt like the world stopped. Students in the library were celebrating an extra week of Spring Break; all I felt was the hole in the pit of my stomach getting bigger. The prior week, I had been obsessively checking the World Health Organization’s website and following the situation in Italy, where my younger sister’s husband still has family; the news was bad and getting worse. I elbow-bumped students instead of hugging them and urged them to take home everything they could. When an advisee asked why, I blurted out: “It will be a miracle if we make it back before Easter.” I listened to my own advice, grabbed a stack of work and a dozen books. Even then I knew it wouldn’t be enough for what was ahead. 

Students in Lit Chat can tell you I am more than slightly obsessed with both the influenza pandemic of 1918 and World War I. I’ve always been fascinated that a soldier could have survived that brutal war and made it home, only to succumb to the flu. Given that obsession, and coupled with the vivid scenes that Emily St. John Mandel paints in Station Eleven – her novel about a flu pandemic that wipes out 99% of the world’s population and which we read for Book Day in 2018 – I left school on March 9th and headed home to an uneasy week. I nervously ran errands, saw friends, had dinner with my best friend on that Friday, hugged him good night and headed home; I wouldn’t see him again until late August, except over Zoom (and we still haven’t hugged). On Saturday, a close friend, who is also the Assistant Director for Medical Compliance for the State of New York, texted me the short message: CALL ME! The all-caps caught my attention. I called him from the street, which I never do because I hate people who talk on their cell phones in public (just because you can doesn’t mean you should). There was no hello, just these words I will never forget: “Go to the store, buy as many groceries as you can carry, go home, and don’t leave until I tell you you can. This is going to be bad.” 

In the month that followed I hunkered down in my 340 square foot apartment and I didn’t leave — not to shop, not to go outside, not to do anything except go down my stoop twice, when no one was around, fully masked, to take out my garbage. I did five-mile walks in my apartment without a treadmill, cleaned every inch of my place, looked up resources for teachers, and avoided all news. What I didn’t do was read.

Most nights, in order to fall asleep, I read. On weekends I start my days with reading and coffee. During those early weeks of the pandemic, all I could do was read WHO Situation Reports; scroll Facebook and read posts from friends outside of NYC who were traveling, seemingly oblivious to what was happening; and try not to mentally count the number of ambulances that raced up Amsterdam Avenue to the hospital 15 blocks away. I tried to read to distract myself from all of this, but nothing seemed to stick. I read the same page again and again, not taking in any of it, while in the back of my mind the number nineteen floated — nineteen ambulances since 7:00 am (and it was only 1:00 pm). Looking back at the few books I did read early in the pandemic, I barely remember them. COVID-19 was taking so much from everyone, but one of my biggest losses was my love of reading.

That finally changed when one of my good friends drove into the city to rescue me. He and his husband have a huge house in New Jersey, and they took me in for nearly a month. With my change of scenery, I made a pact with myself: no going on my phone in the morning or at night. Instead, each morning, I set a timer for an hour in which I would do nothing but read. The temptation was there to check my phone – those first few days I had to fight it – but my morning reading finally just became my routine. 

I devoured and then passed on to my housemates The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, discovered The Library Book by Susan Orlean and reconfirmed to myself exactly why I became a librarian, and binged all three books of the Shades of Magic trilogy by V.E. Schwab — nearly 17,000 pages — in fewer than three weeks. I left their house, headed back to my solitary life in the city for the next seven weeks, but I didn’t waiver from my new routine. I set the alarm. I read. I avoided the news. I found my joy in reading again. 

As the school year came to a close, the world fell apart in another way. George Floyd was murdered, and I let that newly discovered joy of reading keep me afloat amidst all of the anger and violence. Every time I came across the video of Floyd’s murder, I tried to watch it, but I couldn’t. I just kept shutting off the hideous image of Derek Chauvin, hands in his pockets and his knee pressing down on Floyd’s neck. At that same time, I was reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Americanah. While reading it I realized something that was so obvious, it hardly needs to be said, but I’ll say it anyway. As a white person in America, I had the luxury of turning off that video, of not watching George Floyd die, because it is something highly unlikely to happen to me at the hands of the police. 

The more I dug into Adichie’s novel about being an African in the United States, with all of her insights on bias, prejudice, and systemic racism, the more I realized I had to watch the video because I had students and colleagues at school who did not have the luxury to just turn it off. So I watched it, and I cried through all 8 minutes and 46 seconds. I made a promise to myself while watching – and a silent promise to all of the students with whom I work – that I would do better. That I had to. There is a paragraph I keep returning to in Americanah, one I have in my phone camera roll. It’s what I’m using to guide me with every step, what I return to when I stumble (and I already know there will be stumbles along the way): 


So after this listing of don’ts, what’s the do? I’m not sure. Try listening, maybe. Hear what is being said. And remember that it’s not about you. American Blacks are not telling you that you are to blame. They are just telling you what is. If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to be heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.