by Alvin Irby
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – MLK
During American slavery it was illegal for slaves to read or for someone to teach slaves to read in many areas. Why did white slave owners have an aversion to slaves learning to read? I’ll give you a hint: It had nothing to do with the expensive price of books or a lack of storage space on plantations. American ideals born during the enlightenment – the idea that all men possessed certain inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – stood in direct conflict with the institution of American slavery. America’s radical notions of freedom and personhood required an equally radical justification for American slavery. The United States’ founding fathers maintained their lofty ideals of liberty within the context of the transatlantic slave trade by stripping enslaved Africans of their humanity.
One of the key components of America’s process of dehumanizing slaves was the prohibition of reading. Communicating via written language is one of the primary characteristics that separate humans from animals. So, laws prohibiting slaves from learning to read sought to cement enslaved Africans in a sub-human category alongside cattle and other livestock. Today, Americans pause to appreciate Dr. Martin Luther King’s positive and inspiring legacy. However, Dr. King’s piercing words and fight for justice and equality demands more than an annual warm and fuzzy. Reflecting on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. provides us an opportunity to hold a magnifying glass up to this American experiment in democracy, as King did, and demand that we address the ugly, uncomfortable, and ever present reality of racism, greed, and injustice woven into the fabric of American society and the institutions that sustain it.
Individuals and countries with high literacy rates tend to have a higher standard of living than countries with low literacy rates. Children who read proficiently by fourth grade are significantly more likely to graduate from high school, attend college, and secure a higher quality of life than students who struggle with reading early in school. According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 80% of Black male fourth graders are not proficient in reading. For me, this alarming statistic stands as an indictment of the systemic failure of our society to educate and equip Black boys to compete in the knowledge based economy of the 21st Century. My work with Barbershop Books isn’t driven by a fixation on reading skill deficits, which is too often the case with literacy programs, but rather an unshakable desire to see Black boys freed from the shackles of illiteracy, and thus freed to think critically and realize their full potential.
“Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”
Entire generations of Black boys have essentially been sentenced to lives absent the critical thinking and transformative experiences that reading provides. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an excellent example of what it means to sit in the driver seat of one’s own life and learning. Alternatively, I can think of few ideas more detrimental to the self actualization of Black boys than the belief that reading is an activity reserved for and dictated by school. The cyclical and intergenerational nature of poverty, illiteracy, and school failure has led me to believe that individual choices often take a back seat to the external influences of poverty, poor education, and institutionalized racism.
Dr. king said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.” If these criteria constitute “true education” then the test prep factories and militaristic culture that characterize many of the under-resourced public schools that educate Black children are dysfunctional at best. To create the learning experiences to which King referred, we must actively resist deficit thinking and forge a child-centered and culturally competent path forward for Black boys. This means setting aside our preconceived notions about what Black boys need and making room to listen and observe. Sometimes sparking a passion for reading in a young Black boy is as simple as reading that one book he loves so much a million times or buying him the gross booger book that makes your stomach turn. Together we can inspire Black boys to read and create conditions that place them in the driver seat of their life and learning.
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