as told to Greg Weiher
OK, so my thirteen-year-old daughter, who is in eighth grade at a public school, has to write a paper for Black History Month on a famous African-American. Everyone in her class drew names, and she got Tupac Shakur (I am not making this up). We don’t have that much material on Tupac laying around the house, so I took her to the public library to do some research.
I haven’t been to the public library in quite a while, so I was a little surprised to find that the card catalogue appears to have gone the way of the corset and the AMC Gremlin. Of course, everything is done by computer now. That only makes sense, except that in the old days you’d find most of your best sources for a report just by poking around in the relevant section of the card catalogue. You can’t do that any more.
In our local library you have to use the computerized catalogue, but you can’t even get the terminal to talk to you unless you have a library card. This is another difference between the new system and the old card catalogue. So, I went to speak to the librarian.
I complained a little about the fact that you can’t even browse through the holdings of the (supposedly) public library if you don’t have a library card. The librarian pointed out to me, in a way that said, “I know you are a wack job, but I am a kind person and wish you no harm,” that a library card costs nothing. All you have to do is fill out a form and you can have one on the spot.
Of course, the form includes things like your social security number, your driver’s license number, and your address. Furthermore, once you have the card, the way you communicate with the computer system of the library is through your bar code. For instance, you type in your bar code to gain access to the library’s catalogue. Which means that from that point on, everything that you look at can be traced back to you through that same bar code. This is also a little different from the old-fashioned card catalogue.
You might want to give this a little thought. Under the American Patriot Act, it is quite possible that you, too, are unwittingly contributing to your own secret dossier. If your public library uses things like bar codes and requires that you provide your social security number, and your explorations through the catalogue veer off however briefly into the kinky or the politically suspect, you could be called upon one day to defend yourself. Why did you inquire about a book on Karl Marx? On militant Islam? On learning to fly? On PeeWee Herman?
As a result of my support for my daughter’s quest for knowledge, the library now has an indelible record of the fact that I, a thirty-four year old, middle-class, white female, born in Midland, Texas, and living in Houston, employed at the University of Houston (read “pointy-headed liberal academic”), and sometime PTA dissident, spent over half an hour making repeated queries about Tupac Shakur, gangsta, felon, convicted sex abuser, and author of the plaintive lyric “Fuck the World.” Taken out of context, through the mystic agency of my bar code, this might lead the authorities to assume that I harbor the same sentiments that Tupac so poignantly expressed in his classic “Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.:”
Yo Law! Is it cool if a nigga just get fucked up for this one? Yeah Mr. Fuck-a-cop is back and I still don’t give a fuck you know what I’m sayin?
As a result of my researches on my daughter’s behalf I learned that Tupac represents the hyper-masculinity that black men adopt to compensate for the inhuman environment of the ghetto. (I am forced to wonder, what accounts for George W. “bring-’em-on” Bush?)
Another result is that I find myself imagining a darkened room in a remote corner of the basement of the Justice Department. The dim glow of a computer screen silhouettes a slightly slumped, unrecognizable figure fixedly scrolling through columns of data and jotting down notes. I can hear him humming, “Let the Eagle Soar.” I step a little closer, and then a little closer still. At this distance I can see the man’s green visor and I can just make out his features. It’s John Ashcroft. He begins to jot furiously.
I can’t make out what he’s writing. I take two more steps in his direction and crane my neck. And then, on the pad in front of him, I see clearly: “Alert FBI, compile list of associated names, notify airport security, explore possible existence of sleeper cell . . . CHRISTINA HUGHES, Houston, Texas, self-indicted Shakurvian, probable terrorist.”
I’m just waiting for the midnight knock at my door.
Tina Hughes is a political scientist and a research associate in the Center for Public Policy at the University of Houston.
Greg Weiher is a political scientist and a free-lance writer living in Houston, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.