Reading is not only the foundation of educational success but life success. With the necessary literacy skills, our students can catch up quickly when they fall behind. And yes, literacy levels affect dropout rates, increase the levels of incarceration, and negatively impact a person's wages. But it's more than that. Literacy affects how our children excel in life. It enables them to build on their interests, become caring and participating citizens and develop the skills and mindset needed to achieve their goals.
Therefore, this Black History month is the perfect time to discuss how much attention Black literacy needs and deserves, as reading is the gatekeeper to succeeding academically, professionally, and civically.
How did Blacks learn how to read?
During the American Civil War, Blacks were not allowed to read. Thus, Black literacy was a complex issue. Anti-literacy laws against Blacks were put into place in an attempt to prevent them from learning their rights, fighting for independence and taking control of their lives and economic success. Similarly in Canada, before the Abolition of slavery, Blacks had no basic rights or freedoms so some slaves and their children were denied an education, while some slave owners allowed them to learn to read and write.
Therefore, in the 1860s, during the abolitionist movement, Blacks were forced to look for alternative ways to get a formal education. They would learn from each other or stand outside schoolhouses while others were being taught.
Blacks were not forbidden to learn in the antebellum North. However, their schools struggled to survive due to a lack of financial support from the whites. Their curriculum was limited to what white teachers believed Blacks could learn. Despite their challenges, their will to learn, read, and assert their intelligence created opportunities in their communities.
Although there have been positive changes in Black literacy over the years, the Black literacy rate in 2022 is still poor. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 80 per cent of Blacks are not proficient readers. Although this issue applies to all ethnicities, research implies that several factors, such as income levels, adversely affect children of color compared to white children.
Traumatic experiences can hinder a child's ability to learn, even in their earliest years. And according to the Economic Policy Institute, Black children are often the victims of frightening or threatening situations that can cause stress due to limited access to protective resources to help reduce their stress levels.
As a result, their education is greatly affected. Toxic stress in children causes hormone disruption, resulting in stunted brain growth and diminished brain activity in the prefrontal cortex, which controls memory, attention, anxiety, and emotional regulation.
In 2019, the Nation's Report Card from the national assessment of educational progress found that just 15% of Black eighth graders were above "proficiency" in reading. About half didn't even reach the "basic" reading benchmark. School seniors are not much better. Only 17% of Black 12th graders hit "proficiency." Clearly, the American education system is failing Black children.
The academic achievement gap between Blacks and whites goes on to create social and economic inequities. The average annual income of a high school dropout is $23,000 compared with $48,000 for someone with a Bachelor's degree or higher.
Importance of being literate
Literacy can lead to financial independence. For example, 9% of adults who test below basic literacy receive public assistance, while only 3% of proficient adults receive it.
Further, socioeconomic status goes hand in hand with employment status. Low levels of education automatically lead to low-wage jobs. Low wages cause a hand-to-mouth existence that creates cycles of poverty; unfortunately, Blacks are significant victims of this. Other perks of being literate include:
Homeownership and a higher quality of life.
Greater political participation.
Increased access to education, employment opportunities, and business resources.
Higher wages and increased job security.
Why is it Important to read Black literature?
Black children need to see themselves represented in the books they're reading, especially in early education, as it builds their self-esteem and helps them identify with influential characters. Parents should have a variety of books including Black books that provide their children with representation. When young Black children see Black authors achieving great things, they will be more inspired to do great things themselves.
However, white children and other ethnicities should also read Black literature with Black characters and experiences in order to start learning about Black history and Black stories earlier in life. If we start developing culturally aware children with increased empathy for others, we have a chance at eliminating systemic racism and stopping racist ideologies from taking hold early on.
Early childhood education is an important collaboration between in primary school and parents. But remember, parents are always a child's first teacher. With literacy, the most important thing parents can do for their children is to be present and read with their children. While parents may not be content experts, they can definitely set a good example and demonstrate interest in reading as children look to them for direction.
Contact us if you are ready to have a tough conversation about things you stand for, like anti-Black racism, and how to go all in to achieve them.