Thursday, September 16, 2010

Literacy and Race in America

I believe that knowledge is a key to reconciliation and social harmony. Martha Nussbuam's book, Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life, suggest that the literary imagination has profound implications for whether or not we honor the subjectivity of others. Imagining the other, (i.e., empathy)is necessary for just policy decisions, institution building, and ethical deliberation. Along those lines, this year, I will share short pieces on literacy and race in the black male experience. This vignette provides a peek into my own journey.

In the early seventies our family lived in a small apartment in Los Angeles, California. At my first school, Manchester Avenue Elementary, I mostly learned how to avoid unsolicited fights and getting into trouble. My mom moved our family to San Diego, California near the end of my second grade year. In my new class, I discovered that my spelling was limited to two words: my first name and the first month the school year. A Filipino classmate’s mother who volunteered at the school helped me begin to learn to read by giving me a small cardboard box of used books. The next weekend, for the first time I noticed that my grandmother had beautifully bound books around her well-furnished house in addition to old text books stored in the garage. These were curious artifacts for a caramel colored woman who was barely literate and whose parents signed their checks and legal documents with the mark “x.” I wanted to know why my grandmother, who was barely literate, had so many books in her home.

I asked Grandmother about the books one day while she and I were washing her Ford mustang. She understood where my question was coming from and, although she did not tell me directly that she was illiterate, she explained that she had had to leave the schoolhouse to work in the cotton fields and the homes of nice Christian ladies. Her work in the fields and strange kitchens made Grandmother a hard worker and an amazing cook, but it left her with bruised shins and without an education. After she shared her story, Grandmother retrieved from the garage a box containing a matching set of children’s books with browning pages. She had ordered the set of books during my mother’s pregnancy with me. Even as a young boy I comprehended that the books she gave me that day conveyed a hidden transcript containing trauma, loss and unspoken hopes related to literacy and the possibilities that it allows. My grandmother had dreamed that I would learn to love read the books that she had only been able to use to decorate her home. Whereas destiny had forced her, a Black child who lived under a racial caste system, to pick cotton and cook and clean for white women, I, her favored grandchild, born a year before the Civil Rights Act was passed, would live in a world full of promise and have opportunities to read that she had been denied. Thus began my own literacy narrative defined by a quest which, though as directionless as a ship without a rudder, nonetheless put me at odds over race and class with many of my peers and family. Indeed, my mother, best friends, and school house acquaintances overtly and covertly discouraged my love of reading and pursuit of knowledge. According to them, literacy was an effete habit of the rich. They thought I should be practical and get a job working for the city or the war industry. Nevertheless, I persisted in my quest for literacy and came to appreciate why it is a consistent trope in the African-American canon. Literacy signified hope for social progress and human formation. This knowledge has sustained me in my own literacy journey.