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Eastern Michigan University Library
Thomas A. Fleming Collection & Lecture Series
Becoming a person who reads
-- By Thomas A. Fleming, May 2002
My rationale for the following proposal is to be found in the story of the development of my own literacy. As a young man I had little appreciation of the importance of cultural knowledge and the fundamental significance of "becoming a person who reads." But a religious experience that led to an intense desire to read the Bible opened up my life in multiple directions, not just the theological.
My breakthrough into the world of African American history and literature came as the result of my unexplainable fascination with the public figures of my day who happened to come into my personal sphere: I met Marian Anderson as we were both boarding a train from Chicago to Michigan. I had my picture taken with Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, who happened to be a passenger on the William O. Darby, the troop ship that was carrying us across the Atlantic in the 1950¡¯s. It was only a handshake and the exchange of a few words, but my face-to-face encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr. on a march in Detroit electrified my interest in the struggle for civil rights.
As I delved into the new Black books that were appearing on the shelves of Ann Arbor stores, I immediately channeled what I discovered to my students at the Detention School of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District. I packaged information about history, government, and geography for my special "scholars" into decades of history and framed it into units according to the "people, places, and things" that marked each era. I followed authors and their works along paths that intersected with other authors, across disciplines, until I could begin to sense the framework and the fabric of the Black experience as it evolved over 400 years.
I began to build a personal library, which today has grown to several thousand volumes. I felt, and feel, a kinship with the writers and researchers who fashioned these works out of the lived experience of generations of my "folks." The history and knowledge that had heretofore been "lost" or buried or dismissed ¨C to me and to my people ¨C were the stories of my flesh-and-blood ancestors. These stories revealed courage, moral excellence, and brilliant achievement despite terrible obstacles. As I read, I became a new person, a better person ¨C more culturally aware, more intentionally seeking answers to the personal and social challenges of African American life. I became a person who reads ¨C consciously taking up a life of reading that feeds and frees my mind.
Without apology I cherish and wish to pass on the volumes that hold such treasures of knowledge and hope for others. I resonate with the words of George Washington Carver in 1915:
"No individual has any right to come into the world and go out of it without leaving behind him distinct and legitimate reasons for having passed through it"
My particular reasons, I have discovered, are to promote my passion for reading and to pass on this library to make this knowledge available to the next generation. Specifically, I would like to bequeath some portion of my library to Eastern Michigan University, the institution that enabled me to move from ghetto to graduate school to the classroom, and the place I have spent the last ten years of my career in public education.
I believe that future generations of students from all classes and cultural backgrounds have the potential to develop into persons of insight, purpose, and achievement, as they become "persons who read." At Eastern Michigan University a library dedicated to this goal would be a fitting legacy ¨C not merely for two of its African American alumni, but for the countless persons whose lives we include in "our history," our unique cultural tradition.