I'm not the only one who notices the hand-fans first. Stepping into the George Washington Carver branch library -- a modest but beautifully muraled rectangular structure on the Eastside -- one can't help but covet one fan in the middle of one glass case, the one with Martin Luther King Jr.'s likeness bobbing above that of JFK and his brother Bobby's, the one whose images float on a cooling baby-blue background. "These Heroes Died For Freedom," it says. It's a church fan, of course, and it must be from the late Sixties or so.
"I remember these vividly," said Bertha Means, president of the Austin Cab Co., formerly the Harlem Cab Co. "I'm sure some of these folks could use one now." People pass and stare on their way to the refreshment table. "I'm glad somebody's saving these," one lady told another.
Sue Brandt McBee was saving them, but she's not anymore. On Thursday, Aug. 9, she gave her fans to the Carver branch, along with her collection of more than 500 books, photos, videos, and art relating to the African-American experience. "I'm doing this mainly for the black kids," she said about the Sue Brandt McBee Collection of African-American Culture. "It's just stuff I've picked up over the years, when I could. It's not a multimillion-dollar thing, but it needs to be seen. You didn't often see it when I was young."
McBee is a lively, well-spoken whir of Southern charm. She earned her bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin, "way back around World War II." She worked for the Austin American-Statesman, founded the Austin History Center Association (she now serves as its honorary chairperson), and served as an advisor for UT Press. The books and videos will be catalogued and available for checkout. "It's a little bit iffy, but it's what she wants," one employee said. Her eclectic donation is scattered throughout the library; both volumes of a first-edition The Story of the Negro by Booker T. Washington here, a Bakongo, Lower Congo, nail fetish doll there. ("My favorite," Herby Augustin, a library administrator, told me. "That thing has value.") Near the entrance is a mounted, autographed photo of Whitney Houston. "I can almost hear her singing 'I Will Always Love You,'" someone said, and near an 1896 edition of M. Waterbury's Seven Years Among the Freedmen rests Nicole Brown Simpson: The Private Diary of a Life Interrupted. "She does it right," someone else observed about McBee. "And she's still collecting, she's still out there. Did you know a Sue McBee elementary school opened last week?"
There were about 100 people at the reception and ceremony to honor McBee, black and white, and the Carver branch was buzzing with neighborhood gossip and thoughtful discussion. Some regulars were here simply to read or surf the Internet. But most were supporting McBee. Marian Barnes, a writer and storyteller, was here, and so was A.D. Rison, an author of testing guides for black children and a prolific playwright/composer.
"I support anything to help the children," he said. But Herby Augustin, the library employee, expressed doubt that McBee's collection will even register with young library visitors. "They don't care," he complained, while we looked at the cover of a September 1924 Pictorial Review with an illustration of a black child gulping a huge watermelon. "And I understand. It's really for the older people who understand. This guy here doesn't understand. He wants to surf for cartoons." Augustin pointed to a 10-year-old kid at a computer. The child is unaware of the copies of Little Black Sambo and Beloved Belindy, the drawings of black kids with tails, the postcards of famous blackface minstrels, all from McBee's collection, that surround him. "I know about slavery," he responded.
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