Lawrence Lanahan and The Lines Between Us

Stylized black and white drawing of typical Baltimore rowhouses frame the title.

By Holly L.

Journalist Lawrence Lanahan’s 2019 book The Lines Between Us: Two Families and a Quest to Cross Baltimore’s Racial Divide opens with two epigraphs:

It’s in the way their curtains open and close.

“Respectable Street,” XTC

I don’t even have to do nothing to you.

“Big Brother,” Stevie Wonder

The first line comes from English post-punk band XTC’s 1981 song about what songwriter and frontman Andy Partridge considered “the hypocrisy of living in a so-called respectable neighborhood. It’s all talk behind twitching curtains.” The second lyric is from a track from Stevie Wonder’s 1972 album Talking Book. In the song, Wonder takes the white establishment (Big Brother) to task for only coming to the ghetto “to visit me ‘round election time.” He continues his indictment – “I don’t even have to do nothin’ to you” because, from offenses ranging from criminal neglect of its black citizens to having “killed all our leaders…you’ll cause your own country to fall.”

It is fitting that Lanahan chose these words and these voices to begin this story, as his narrative weaves together multiple perspectives but most closely follows the criss-crossing threads of two individuals, one black and one white.

Nicole Smith is a young black woman living with her family in a West Baltimore rowhome owned by her mother, Melinda. When we meet Nicole, she is twenty-five and is contemplating the crossing of a line—leaving her neighborhood (and family and community) behind in search of security and opportunity for herself and her six-year-old son, Joe. Though she is enrolled in Baltimore City Community College and is on a waitlist for affordable housing in the city, Nicole seems to be on an existential treadmill, running but getting nowhere fast. She’s heard of a place called Columbia, a planned community in Howard County, with a reputation for good schools, plenty of jobs, and safe streets. Could she make it there?

Mark Lange is a white man raised in the Baltimore suburbs who, after a spiritual reckoning in his late teens, embarks on a path of service informed by the teachings of Mississippi civil rights activist and Christian minister John M. Perkins, who argued that those who wanted to help communities in need must live among them. As Mark’s story begins to be told, he feels a gravitational pull from his comfortable suburban life in Bel Air toward Sandtown, a West Baltimore neighborhood where his best friend Alan Tibbels, a like-minded white Christian with a mission of racial reconciliation, relocated with his family. If he moves, would Mark prove to be just another “white savior” looking to appease his own guilt? Or would be able to form meaningful relationships and help foster change in an impoverished community?

In this meticulously researched book, Lanahan alternates the fascinating tales of Nicole and Joe with the complicated history of Baltimore’s segregation and the resulting devastating impact on its black communities. Having its genesis as a year-long multi-media series on inequality in the Baltimore area broadcast from September 28, 2012 to October 4, 2013 on WYPR, Maryland Public Radio, the depth and breadth of Lanahan’s reporting is detailed to an almost dizzying degree. But just when a reader’s brain might start to get overwhelmed by the minutiae of historical detail (as mine sometimes did), my attention would come swiftly back into focus as the humanity of Nicole and Mark’s stories propelled me through the book. The Lines Between Us should be required reading for anyone who wishes to understand the institutional forces that shape inequality in our region and for those whose understanding of their neighbor might require them to cross a line. And isn’t that most of us?

Join us: Author Works with Lawrence Lanahan
Wednesday, January 12 from 7 – 8:30 pm
In person, HCLS Central Branch
Register at bit.ly/3pFTq3y

To learn more about the historical policies of redlining, visit the interactive exhibit currently at Central Branch. Undesign the Redline explores the history of structural racism and inequality, how these designs compounded each other from 1938 Redlining maps until today, and the national and local impacts. Join a guided tour on Wednesdays at 11 am and Saturdays at 2 pm.

Holly L. is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Miller Branch. She enjoys knitting and appreciates an audiobook with a good narrator.

Racial Equity: Collecting Stories in our Community

Two hands joined by hooking thumbs. The hand on the left is White and has the word "Learn" on the palm. The hand on the right is Black and says "Act."

By Katie DiSalvo-Thronson

With respect to racism, tell us about a time in the last six months you had an experience and thought “things have got to change.”

All of us have a story to tell, and we’d like to hear yours!  

HCLS wants to provide community engagement and education that advances equity and connects people to opportunities to make a difference. 

We invite you to join us at one of two virtual gatherings to hear and share stories related to racial equity. Please bring your experiences and insights, listening ears, and an open mind and heart.  

We are excited that through this event, you will have two options to make your story part of something bigger: You can share your story with the library’s new collection of stories about local racial experiences. You also can share your stories and experiences with the County Council’s Racial Equity Task Force.

The Task Force is developing recommendations for the County Council about legislations that can advance equity. Stories shared with them will be official testimony for the Task Force to consider as it does its work.

These events are previews of additional story gathering efforts the library will launch this spring.  

Thursday, Feb 18  |  7 pm  |  Register 
Saturday, Feb 20  |  1 pm  |  Register 

Katie is the Community Education and Engagement Manager for HCLS. She loves people, the big questions, the woods, and chocolate.

Community Engagement for Equity

A woman with long dark hair holds a sign that reads, "Listen. Respond positively. Be courageous! Show Compassion!"
Smiling woman holding a motivational message from the Longest Table event.

by Katie DiSalvo-Thronson

Learn about what’s local!

This fall we designed and launched a new series of programs to educate customers about local diversity, equity, and inclusion issues, and connect participants to organizations taking action on those topics.

Why? Our mission to provide high-quality education for all must include education about our own community! As local news coverage has decreased, it is especially imperative to create conversations and presentations where our shared experience as Howard County residents is discussed and analyzed. We hope you come learn with us, and that our programming helps you contribute to our community.

Look forward to events on the county council’s Racial Equity Taskforce and more.

Learn about your neighbors!

In strategic planning events held with over 500 residents in 2019 and early 2020, HCLS staff heard loud and clear that people are interested in ways to learn about each other. People said they want opportunities to bridge what can feel like racial, cultural, and political divides in the country and build more community. At the excellent 2020 virtual Longest Table, participants voiced this request again.

Howard County is asking HCLS to make spaces for people to connect with and learn from each other. Look ahead to more programming in 2021 with small group discussion, especially on diversity, equity, and inclusion topics.

Additionally, HCLS will be launching a story collection effort on racial equity issues. We have two goals. First, we hope to build community – that sharing and listening to stories will increase our understanding of each other, provide recognition of diverse experiences, and spur new relationships. Second, we seek impact. We will use our stories to understand local diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts more precisely. We will publicly share stories and community-led analysis of these stories to help inform local decision-making. We can’t wait to start this process with you.

Stay tuned at hclibrary.org and through HiLights, our weekly email newsletter.

Katie is the Community Education and Engagement Manager for HCLS. She loves people, the big questions, the woods, and chocolate.

A Community Memorial for the Covid-19 Pandemic

A black silhouette of a bare tree sits on a blue background, with red letter that read "Remembrance Trees" and a white ribbon with a message on it.

HCLS and InLACE, the Initiative for Latin American Community Engagement, are partnering to offer Remembrance Trees, a community memorial for the Covid-19 pandemic from Dec 9 – 21, and Remembering Together, a virtual event on Monday, Dec 21, 6 – 7 pm. These efforts look to honor those loved ones who have passed and those who are struggling near and far due to the Covid-19 pandemic — and to help us remember that while we might be distanced, we’re deeply connected and can support each other.

Patricia Silva of InLACE approached the library and asked if HCLS wanted to collaborate on this important, meaningful idea during what will be a challenging holiday season for many.  HCLS’s Katie DiSalvo-Thronson spoke with her about the inspiration and hopes for these projects. For more information about Remembrance Trees and Remembering Together, visit hclibrary.org/remembrance.

How did you get the idea for this effort?

I first was thinking about this because so many people were dying and how much despair they must have felt and how lonely people have been. When you hear that the families couldn’t say their goodbyes, that bonds were lost… We need to honor them.

I haven’t lost anyone, but when I hear people talking about their friends, sons and daughters being sick or dying that makes me sad and makes me want to reach out with information or emotional support and it makes me want to honor those lives. 

Our losses are not reflected only in death, but people losing their jobs, not being able to have food in the house, or facing mental health difficulties. This pandemic affects your hope. What I want to honor also encompasses people who are living with those struggles and uncertainty.

What do you want to remember during this memorial and event?

I think that every life counts and no one should endure this alone. Solidarity.

For you, what does “community” mean in this moment?

Well, it’s a tricky one, because community is something that is immediate around you – but when you become a citizen of the world the notion of community just gets bigger, broader. I live in Howard County, but what happens in my native country of Brazil also affects me.

The other day I was walking through my neighborhood and I saw a lawn sign that said “together and apart.” I think that the same time that social distance makes us physically distant from each other, it could give us a sense of connectivity. We can support each other in ways that are less physical and concrete because what we do and don’t do impacts other people’s lives. If we do social distance, that will impact the curve and fewer people will get sick. The beauty of it in my view is that applies to everything. If we reach out to family and friends to support them, that can save lives, that can help someone. We are in this together. That’s true!

Who should participate in this memorial and event?

Oh my gosh! This is open to everyone who wants to express their solidarity, and in any sense grieve and mourn and remember.

Patricia Silva is InLACE’s Co-Founder and President and a community advocate.

The Library is for Everyone

The picture depicts a group of customers seated in a reading area in the library, studying materials from the collection.

By Piyali C.

The residents of Howard County are blessed to enjoy the diverse cultures and practices that people from countries around the world bring to our community. I was one such immigrant who moved to Howard County from India in 2004 with a 5 year old and a newborn. Every immigrant’s experience is different and unique, but I believe there is one common thread that binds us when we move to a different country: anonymity. Often, this includes loneliness. Leaving behind everything that is familiar, we transplant our lives to a new country for various reasons: job, a better (different) standard of living, education, and/or marriage. As we rebuild our lives in a new land, we embrace new cultures and traditions of our adopted country. Slowly, we build new relationships. Yet at the beginning, we are new, unknown.

My refuge in those uncertain days of transition was the Howard County Library. I was at the library so often and so regularly that the librarians knew me; they knew my name. It may not seem that special to many, yet to me, a new immigrant to the country, just that recognition was huge. As I stood in line to pick up my holds, the Customer Service Specialist brought my held materials without scanning my card. They greeted me by my name and asked me how I was. When I called to sign up my daughter for a class (yes, we had to call in those days), the Children’s Instructors started writing down my daughter’s name before I had to give it to them.

Within the library, I lost my anonymity. It meant a lot. I wonder today if the library worker who helped me, greeted me, took a few minutes to exchange pleasantries with me knew what a difference he or she was making to a newcomer in this country?

I work at the library now. I try my best to remember my feeling of loneliness when I first arrived. And I try to pass the kindness that I received from the librarians forward. I try to be present in the moment, I try to remember the customer’s name and even if I don’t, I always smile and say hello. I know, in my own little way, I am acknowledging a fellow human and who knows, maybe making a little difference in his/her day?

I have many stories to tell about my interactions with new immigrants at the library, but one stands out especially in my mind. A gentleman started frequenting the library a while back. He was from a different country and spoke almost no English. Language, however, did not deter us from having conversations. He managed to convey his needs through smiles, gestures, and pointing, and somehow I understood what he needed that I was able to provide – scissors, directions, printing. One day, he came to the desk, pointed to me, and said “friend.” Then he took a picture of a child from his wallet and showed it to me with a big smile. It was a photo of his child. I cherish that interaction.

Public library workers are not limited to providing information for research; they are also cornerstones of the community. They provide a safe place and create a meaningful impact, sometimes even without realizing it.

This blog post is my ode to librarians and every library worker. Since I am a lover of books as well as libraries, Part Two of my post will be published on Wednesday with a few of my favorite immigrant fiction and nonfiction books that you can borrow from Howard County Library System. Look for it then!

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.