Race and Reading: Reviving the Reluctant Reader

By Nikitra Hamilton, BA, M.Ed., MLS

HOUSTON – To truly understand the state of literacy in today’s United States, we need to go back to the beginning. Literacy has long been used as a method of social control and oppression. Throughout much of history, the ability to read was something only privileged, upper-class white men were allowed to learn. School wasn’t free, and education was provided to only a select few. This preserved a class system that kept the poor powerless and the rich powerful—a practice that continues today.

According to the Smithsonian, after the slave revolt of 1831, all slave states except Maryland, Kentucky, and Tennessee passed laws that made it illegal to teach slaves to read and write. The Alabama Slave Code of 1833 included this following law: “Any person who shall attempt to teach any free person of color, or slave, to spell, read or write, shall upon conviction thereof by indictment, be fined in a sum of not less than two hundred fifty dollars, nor more than five hundred dollars.” That was a whole lot of money in 1833.

Why were they so concerned about slaves learning to read? Because if slaves learned to read, they could access information. They could read newspapers. They could read books and understand their rights. They could organize and rise up against the institution of slavery. Slave owners wanted to keep their slaves uneducated and powerless because they understood that literacy represents power.
Race and reading has been a topic that has been avoided by majority of the population for many reasons. Why? Because it addresses the inequities and the bias that African-Americans have experienced systemically for years.
This reality can be disheartening unless one believes in the power of hope and restoration. So, how do we at Booker T. Washington take these negative statistics, and turn them into positive actions?
We challenged our students to read 32 books from November 2018 until March 2019. Our students were not only required to comprehend the titles, but they were required to become so familiar with the satire, genre, characters, and plot; that from a single quote, they would be able to NAME THAT BOOK!

We understood that this was not an easy feat, so our students took the challenge seriously! First, they were instructed on strategy. They needed to understand the fact that our high school had never competed, they needed to understand that they had minimal time to read versus the other high schools, and they had to believe that winning was possible even with all the odds stacked against them!
But, even more than that, we had personal conversations about the power of reading, we took the time to understand the history of why African-Americans were denied access to books, and we had to understand how reading was and remains the main tool that can create freedom, knowledge, and power.

Armed with this information, we gathered with our team of six students: Fadra Waller, Dinesty Moore, Latrice Hammond, Rebeckah Hodge, Brianna Smith, and Alexa Hillary. We read, read, read, and analyzed, analyzed, and analyzed. You get the point….
We placed 2nd in the Preliminaries and had a neck to neck score (13-10) against Carnegie High School! Booker T. Washington made it to the finals in our very first reading competition! We got 12 out of the 24 questions correct in the Finals as well and placed 5th!

“I really wanted to win!” stated Rebeckah Hodge, “but, I feel so good about coming to the competition, I didn’t even know a competition like this existed, I can’t wait until next year”!

“Ms. H, it’s war,” exclaimed Dinesty Moore, “Can we get our books earlier next year, and maybe even read them over the summer?!?”

Mrs. Casey Whitney, our campus NTB Co-sponsor (previous HISD graduate and reading club member) stated, “I love that our students are now being associated with both athletics and academics; this is a BIG DEAL”!

Although, it’s highly important for our students to be educated by our systems; It is more important for our students of color to value the ability to self-educate via reading. As their leaders, it is our responsibility to teach them the difference between forced reading and self-selected reading.

Due to the lack of mentors in our community, books are our students’ MENTORS. They can essentially learn about anything they want to know, which is how our founder, Booker T. Washington, became self-educated.
With a serious stare, and a new-found sense power, Alexa Hillary, looked at the group and affirmed “We’re- going- to- win- next- year!” The beauty of this complete evolution in regard to our students’ attitudes about reading was beyond remarkable to watch!

Photo credit: Nikitra Hamilton