The Personal Librarian #BookReview

Marie Benedict & Victoria Christopher Murray | June 2021 | 341 pages

I’ve always shied away from books on colorism and white passing. I didn’t finsh The Vanishing Half and I’ve never started Passing by Nella Larsen, which has since been adapted into a movie showing on Netflix. Something in the story lines always rub me the wrong way. I think its remarkably horrible that a whole group of people would have to pose as someone else, walk away from tribe, family and friends, in order to get basic needs and respect as humans we should all receive. I don’t want the history to be fictionalized. It feels marginalized in some way. It feels disrespectful to those that gave up everything to live a lie in hopes of receiving what should have been owed.

In reading, as in life, you should never say never and I somehow found myself reading a historical fictionalized version of the life of Bella daCosta Greene, personal librarian to J. P. Morgan. daCosta Greene was born Belle Greener of Washington, DC, daughter of the first African American graduate of Harvard University and a prominent person fighting for race equality. In 1905, her mother told the New York Census they were white and caused an immediate rift in the family. Her parents eventually split, the mother changed their names and invented a Portuguese grandmother to explain Bella’s ‘olive’ complexion and begin their journey passing. There are very few photos of Bella but, black and white photos pick up plenty o’ melanin. 🙄🤦🏾‍♀️ Homegirl wasn’t even the lightest crayon in the box and her hair was definitely long and thick, a’la 4b. Nonetheless, her lightness was the families ticket to better housing, food, schools, jobs, everything. And she was relied upon to use it and wasn’t given a choice. You get the impression that Belle didn’t want to but also didn’t want to give up the ‘luxuries’ the practice afforded her and her family. It worked well for Belle who morphed into Bella and landed the job with JP Morgan.

Bella’s story is interesting but not because of some dramatic trails and tribulations or murderous adventure. Its a story about a woman and her desire to be at the top of her game as a personal librarian, the secret she had to keep and what it ultimately cost her. It spans her adult life. Bella attempts to maintain relationships with her immediate family but, we’re present when Bella is confronted by her cousins anger at her betrayal and assumptions that Bella thinks shes better than them. We are also present when Bella falls in love of sorts but realizes she must keep everyone at arms length because of her secret. She cannot have children because what if? We hear about Bella’s experience being a woman in the art world and being bestowed such purchasing power and even having a personal relationship with Morgan himself.

The book does a great job of not embarrassing the Morgan family by disclosing or even dramatizing any unfortunate conversations Bella must have been privy to. Its benign in that regard, to the point of distraction. Bella admits to feeling uncomfortable several times in the presence of black waitstaff, over tipping when possible, likely to avoid being outed. It was hinted that perhaps the senior Morgan knew her secret and didn’t care but, that his sister cared very much.

We meet several shady characters along the way, i’m not at all familiar with art world gossip, especially from decades ago, but those stories lend plenty of texture and suspense. In the book daCosta has a romantic relationship with married art historian Bernard Berenson. A quick google search agrees he was fairly average and his wife likely wrote most of his works.

The ending explains why this would have to be a fictional telling about her life, since she destroyed her personal papers prior to her death in 1950. You get the sense that she had lived the lie for so long, perhaps she didn’t want her legacy marred with the truth. That’s unfortunate. She certainly lived an interesting life and i would have loved to hear her true story in some of her words.

A special and surprising gift in the book is an interview with the 2 authors. From each of their perspectives you hear how they connected during a pandemic and deeper during civil unrest after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a policeman. Its apparent the two women, one black, one white, forged a special relationship that allowed each of them to grow. Maybe that love is what shines through the text and makes this book so interesting and heartfelt. I was better for reading it and would consider it one of 2021’s greatest reads.

6 Comments

  1. I appreciate your openness about what is a very fraught topic covered in this book. I just want to add that, although I hear your hesitation about “fictionalizing” the reality of people passing as white, the way I first became aware of this part of history was through fiction books: Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith and Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. Is it a mark of inadequate education that I had to find out about this from fiction? Probably. But, in the defence of fiction, it can help fill the gap and get awareness out there, if it is treated in a respectful and thoughtful way by people who are informed about the subject, as with any topic, however sensitive.

    And it sounds like this book is one of those that would be an enlightening read. Thanks for the review and the insightful thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love your comment and its sooo true! Ive learned about many different cultures through fiction. I always take some time to do a little research though because I know what is written in fiction is not always true. Writers tend to make passing about frivolousness. Even our early American Sociologist incorrectly interpreted the act as black people wanting to be white, when in fact what they desired was access. Access to the right to own a home or run a business. The authors here did a great job of making this closer to our reality, which i appreciated and i think made it more palatable for me. Id highly recommend this book for anyone interested in this topic. Its definitely told in a different way.

      Liked by 2 people

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