I resigned from university teaching a few years back for reasons that four years later still seem to make no sense to anyone other than myself. It was a decision I’m glad I made. The hardest part of leaving the university, however, after nearly eighteen years as a professor was having to decide what to do with the hundreds of books I’d accumulated over the years and that lined the walls of my office like sentinels to my deepest secrets. Books are like water to a scholar and teacher. You can never get enough. The life of the mind requires constant inspiration and constant priming. I’d been an academic for virtually all of my adult life – first as a divinity student, then a doctoral student, and finally a professor—and the books in my office were proof of my identity and testament of all the work as a woman and African-American I’d put into studying and preparing to do the work I was doing. Each book had shaped me in its own way– books on topics like women’s studies, Ancient Near Eastern studies, Egyptian studies, African American history, African history, American politics, art history, linguistics, homiletics, church history, liberation theology, black church studies, early Christian literature, and, of course those from my discipline, Old Testament studies. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take my books home with me. There wasn’t room in my home office. And the thought of dumping them in boxes and storing them in a dark corner of the basement of my house seemed like an insult to books who were like friends who had at different points in my life stepped in and saved my life.
On a whim I decided to donate those books I could bring myself to part with to the library of a small black Baptist college across town– American Baptist College
It took six days to break down my library and to pack each volume away. As I took each book down from its place on the shelf I made sure to thank each one for whatever role it had played in my life – in helping me write papers, prepare for graduate exams, devise class lectures, research book ideas, come up with sermon outlines. Some books had proven valuable from over to cover. Others needed to be thanked for that one chapter, one paragraph or one sentence that had cracked open the secrets to a new world of undersanding. Giving away those books was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. It felt like giving away bits and pieces of my body.
Off went more than three hundred books to a small black Baptist college across town which has a long and proud history of training students and leaders in the black community who otherwise might never gain entrance into the Ivy League institutions that have trained me.
In the four years that have passed I’ve bought lots of new books to replace the ones I gave away, books that reflect my new obsessions. And, truth is, I’ve forgotten about the books I gave away. (The moral of the story: you can live without more than you think you can.)
Meanwhile, the library and the librarian at American Baptist College have been thanking God for the gift that was dropped off at their doorstep. So invaluable to the school and its student body is the collection, especially, of religion books I donated that the school held a ceremony earlier this week in which they honored me. At the ceremony the school dedicated the section of the school’s library where the books are now housed as “The Renita J. Weems Collection.”
I choked with emotion when I saw my old friends standing proudly like sentinels in their new home. They looked happy and content. I guess that’s because they are where they should be, some place where they stand a chance of becoming once again the answer to someone’s prayer for ideas and revelation. I’m glad my old books have found a new home and am proud of the decision I made on a whim one day to donate them to a school and library that sorely needed them. I’m probably prouder of this achievement than I am of anything else I’ve done in my life. Perhaps because I didn’t plan it. “It is the Lord’s doing,” says the psalmist, “and it is marvelous in my sight.”
Who would have thought that in giving away a book you make room for more wisdom and insight than you had before?