James Baldwin once said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” We all have that Uncle that reverts back to slavery at a every turn. A conversation about polo shirts could mean a dissertation about Mississippi Cotton plantations. He’ll go on to say how most corporations would never be where they are had it not been for 12-16 hour a day slave labor. Add some 250 years of that free labor into the mix and you have a ton of uncles poised to verbally tear America to shreds. Any argument could ultimately take a rugged ride up the mountain of white blame. And by all means I believe that whites play a significant role in the continuation of the disparities that exist in this country. We can leave that debate for Cornel West and his counterparts. I believe it’s more important that we “read" into the situation here in Baltimore and especially America, before we make progress.
“Did you read the Narrative of Frederick Douglass this year?” I interrogated my nephew Fahim 2 weeks ago. “Like did ya’ll at least watch a documentary yo?” I said pressing further. He replied, “Naw we really ain’t learn about him so far, I mean Ummi (grandma) talks about him, that’s it.” Our interaction had taken a turn for the worse and I became enraged. It would have been too difficult to explain the gruesome steps day by day and year by year that Douglass took to become marginally literate, and eventually one of the best writers ever in America. Sadly, he and my niece were the only two present to express my frustration. “It blows my mind that you could be in a high school called Frederick Douglass, and his autobiography not act as the living bible for the entire school” I lashed out again. I turned to my niece in confusion, “Bilquis, what are you reading now?”. She snapped, “Black Boy by Richard Wright”. “See that? They reading Richard Wright, this is crazy” I shouted. Bilquis goes to City College High School in East Baltimore, a rather prestigious institution. Fahim goes to Frederick Douglass in West Baltimore, a school working to improve its reputation. Douglass’s most recent fame has been it’s supplying of rock catapulting students to start the Baltimore uprising. And like many other people, parents, places and schools, I can’t see that it’s absolutely sold on reading.
Out of the chaos of Baltimore’s riots many social issues have taken a turn under the microscope. Maybe it’s just me, but the statistics on literacy in Baltimore would leave one to believe that this is a third world country. I believe culturally and structurally we’ve dropped the ball of literacy and the love of reading. According to the Baltimore Library project, “In 2012 34.5% of 3rd graders read below grade level, a figure that is double the State average. What makes these figures even more alarming is the fact that it’s been shown that one in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade do not graduate from high school on time.” We can begin to deduce other symptoms that come about from this level of illiteracy. But there is a cultural component that needs to be discussed as well. Black kids don’t associate being “cool” with reading. So even people who can read, don’t, because we as Black Americans have been stigmatized as soft, or a nerd for finding out what’s in a book. My father used to say in his early demonizing of Facebook, “you need to get off Facebook and put your face in a book!”
Social Media with all it’s ills makes it quite easy to keep an eye out for new things friends are doing. Sometimes these can be friends you haven’t seen in 10 years. I was having a comment conversation one day about how kids in the hood won’t think reading is cool until “a guy is posted on the block with a book cracked open”. Low and behold the next day, another friend from my old neighborhood posted a picture of a black guy reading Soledad Brother, The Prison Letters of George Jackson, leaning on a wall with his pants slightly sagging. Of course the picture made my mind race. “Could I be a psychic or some type of savant?” I kept thinking to myself. But those type of self-allegations weren’t necessary.
Another search through my Instagram led me to a white dude’s page with a video of a black man protesting in front of the West Baltimore police station with Michelle Alexander’s Book “The New Jim Crow”. The white guys caption under read, “this must be the bible of the movement”. Let’s add that there are tons more bibles to pick up and read! However Alexander has provided an exceptional new doctrine. I’ve been pointing out what many have been pointing out for years in the ghetto. That is, once the love of reading fills the hearts of the people in slum areas like Baltimore, you’ll at least see people begin to question their circumstances and hopefully start answering them on their own. But for now we’ve locked ourselves in the darkness in America. So out of all the programs and promises our recent crisis brings, I hope literacy is at the top of the shelf. I’m not saying that books are the only sun that will illuminate that darkness, but every book a child reads is a lantern on a path to understanding, then escaping, or bettering these ghettoes.