Marie Benedict & Victoria Christopher Murray: The Personal Librarian

First, have you seen a picture of Belle da Costa Greene (Belle Marion Greener)? If not, take a look.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I can immediately tell she is a Black woman. When I see pictures of Black people who passed as white in the early 1900s, I am amazed by the absolute insanity of it all. Now, I have seen many mixed-race people who could certainly pass as white, but to have two light-skinned Black parents and to be a light-skinned Black person with distinctively Black features, and to pass as white is… victorious.

Reading Belle’s story, I was constantly worried about her being found out. Even when she had that last conversation with Anne, I was yelling at the book, “Don’t reveal yourself! Don’t trust her!” Also, she had a thing for older men… like, 20-40 years her senior [mind blown].

I cannot imagine the pressure she must have felt every day to live her life as a white woman. She mentions several times that her sisters have a lighter complexion and are more white-passing than herself and their brother, and while the consequences of any of them being found out would be devastating, it would be even more so for her sisters once they married white men. Belle could lose her job and income for deceiving Mr. Morgan (and the entire art world), but, depending on the kind of men they married, her sisters could lose their lives.

But we’re not here to talk about passing as much as we are to talk about Belle’s incredible skill and how she became such an impressive woman and asset that J.P. Morgan adder her to his will.

Belle was bold. In her words, actions, and dress. She didn’t dim herself for fear of being found out, she dug in to her role (because she was acting) as a strong woman navigating a world and a career dominated by men. She would not have become J.P. Morgan’s Librarian if she couldn’t excel in her position. She had to know her stuff to compete in the world she was in. Her position was more “museum curator” than what we might typically consider a Librarian. She wasn’t just cataloging books, she had to source ancient texts to collect and be able to authenticate them to prove their value in Morgan’s collection. I understand why the activists in the women’s movement and her male colleagues in the art world alike held her in such high esteem.

She achieved so much more than other women at that time could achieve, and her accomplishments ran even deeper considering she was a Black woman. I did wish, however, that she would never have gone back to Bernard, but she learned his true character in the end anyway so I was still satisfied.

I didn’t know I would enjoy The Personal Librarian this much (I tend to hesitate with books about Black people written by white authors, but it was co-authored with a Black author so I gave in), but I often found myself not wanting to put it down. I’m glad I added it to my list. We’ll see what I find next.

Happy reading!