My first memory involving books is sitting cross legged on the floor in front of the bathroom in my childhood home. My mother is bent over the bathtub, scrubbing it down with cleaner. It smells like bleach or Comet. There is sunlight that comes in through the bathroom window and makes the white tiled walls seem to glow. I even remember the book. “The Fire Cat,” by Esther Averill. It was already pretty much in shambles as it had been my brothers’ first book as well. I read slowly and stopped for a few minutes on each page, staring at each picture. The cover was red and the pages were brittle, almost yellowed, some with crayon marks, others torn a little in the corners. But I was reading with no help from Mami, who listened to each word I read out loud.
“No. Say that word again, Imani. Try again. Sound out the word.” She’d turn towards me whenever I fumbled, sunlight framing her brown face, patience in her eyes.
Yes, I was taught in school the technical parts of literacy: what a noun is, vowels, etc. But I learned to love to read at home, sitting cross legged in front of the bathroom, reading an old hand me down book to my mother.
“If you can control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do.”
– from The Miseducation of The Negro by Carter G. Woodson
The system never wanted us to learn how to read.
Literacy has always been a powerful tool and the oppressor has always been well aware of this. With reading and writing, comes the acquisition of knowledge, the beauty of critical thought, the complexities of human intelligence and emotion. Literacy provided a freedom which the oppressor could not control….thought. During the slave era of the United States, the slave system relied so heavily on the dependence of the slave on their oppressors that to introduce literacy to slaves meant a potential for uprisings. In other words, if slaves could read and write, they’d be able to learn, comprehend, and communicate the atrocities they were facing. All of this would make them too human. And the slave system couldn’t handle that. Soon, laws forbidding literacy for slaves were created. A Virginia law in 1819 even states that a slave learning to read could be punished by 20 lashes. Despite the threat of this sort of violence, slaves often developed ingenious ways to gain literacy. In the Caribbean, even up until the end of slavery, there was no attempt to offer slaves an education and it was highly forbidden for them to learn how to read or write.
When I was teaching literacy at an after-school program in Washington Heights, a predominately Latino neighborhood in New York City, a lot of my middle-school aged students often told me that reading was “boring,” that reading would never get them anywhere, that they “hated reading.” How do you teach literacy to a bunch of middle-schoolers saying THAT?
I decided that the very first lesson of each semester would be teaching students about the prohibition of literacy during slavery both in the United States and the Caribbean. We wouldn’t read or write anything outside of a one-sheeter that listed different slave laws forbidding literacy. We spent the entire hour I had them to myself discussing how unfair it was and why they thought slave owners wanted this law in place.
“Because if slaves could read, they could read signs and run away.”
“Well, what do you think that reading gives us?”
“Words, letters, sentences.”
“Yes, of course, but how do you learn things really? Even math and science. How do you learn those things…by doing what?”
“Right. So, if you can read things, you can do what?”
“You can learn.”
“So is that why you want us to like reading, Miss Angie? Because we can learn?”
The very first book I read that had a Puerto Rican in it was Spidertown, by Abraham Rodriguez. A friend of my brother’s had lent it to him and he had left it in his bedroom. The cover is what called me. There it was, my last name on the cover of a book. Of course, it wasn’t my full name, but it was my last name, Rodriguez. I was 12 years old and I devoured that book. I mean, I had always been a reader. I was a kid that used to run home from school to watch “Reading Rainbow” or “Wishbone.” By 10, I already had my own bookcase spilling over with books and the best days in school were the Scholastic Book Fairs. But this book, this book was just different. Inside it were street names I knew and characters that talked like people from my neighborhood. I couldn’t relate to the story of a hustler of course, but I knew what a hustler looked like and I knew where Burnside Avenue was and I knew what “wack” meant. I inhaled that book.
When I was 13, I found my mother’s tattered copy of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and went at it like a surgeon. I still have that tattered, taped-up copy, every word I didn’t know at 13 highlighted in bright pink. I would write down the words I didn’t know and the page number it was on, look them up, write down the definition, and then re-read the sentence knowing the definition. The Bluest Eye was the first book that took me longer than a day or two to read, the first book I actively read, the first book that made me question concepts like race and identity.
What’s more important than gaining literacy? Connecting with it. If a student cannot identify with the character, they will not enjoy the reading. Period. Yes, there are occasions where students who love to read will read anything, but for those kids who say they hate reading or that they think it’s boring, the connection to the material is essential. I’ve always loved to read and write since I was a child but the tool changed drastically for me when I learned that there were authors with my last name. I was able to connect to the story. Perhaps you’ve heard this before. I know I have. But gotdammit, it’s the truth and we have to pay attention to what works.
Years after those two pilfered novels became the catalyst to my insatiable thirst for literacy, I dedicated my college career to reading writers of color and graduated in 2014 with a degree in Multi-Ethnic Literature and Multi-Ethnic Women and Gender Studies from the CUNY Baccalaureate for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies program. In 2015, with the encouragement of some sister-friends, I created the Boricongo Book Gang, an online book club that focuses on writers of color. Both of these things have reaffirmed my passion and have confirmed to me (and others) that there is more in literature than Holden-friggin-Caulfield and it should all be shared and taught and enjoyed.
I bet you’re asking why I mentioned those two books. Well, what’s most important to know is that I took both of those books without asking my brother or my mother. Pilfering those books led me down this beautiful path and I am so blessed for them, but imagine what would’ve happened if the books had been GIVEN to me?
In other words, y’all, share books with kids that they can relate to. Show them that their world is worth writing about and that it’s worth reading about. Read with them, make them read out loud to you. Make them put away the iPads, the game consoles, the technology. Encourage them to look up words they don’t know, to repeat the sentence, to talk about what they have read. Give them books that they connect with. Ask them how they connected. Push them. Have a night in the house where everyone (including you!) just reads. Push their minds. It will be an invaluable tool for them. Shit, for YOU.
“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”
― Frederick Douglass
I suppose you can call this essay my love letter to reading or even a shameless plug for my journey and passion with literacy. What can I say? I am a proud booknerd, a plothead who enjoys the high of the page, a devout bibliophile and book hoarder. I knew I wanted to talk about literacy and I didn’t really know how to tackle the topic. I hope I have done it some justice.
But honestly, this essay is something else. It’s a warning. Literacy and the critical thinking that comes hand in hand with it stands to be dying skills in the age of Instagram, reality TV, emojis, and blind posting. Bottom line is that the Republican administration which puppeteers the Cheeto-in-office, is working to maintain ignorance. How do you maintain that in the age of information, where your answers are a key-swipe away? By restricting fact, by strictly monitoring the media, by calling journalists fake, by recreating the narrative we teach our children by steering education into the ground with the likes of Devos, etc.
This hasn’t just started though.
Think back to 2011, when an Arizona law banned not just books but an entire curriculum of Mexican-American studies from schools, spawning the Librotraficante movement, which helped “smuggle” banned books back into the communities they were taken from. It is a movement that continues to fight against laws that are meant to restrict and repress communities of color from connecting with literature and knowledge. Approximately 82 books were banned from schools in Tucson and only 7 of these banned books as of 2014 were added back to the Tucson schools’ curriculum. Go ahead. Sit with that shock. 82 books, mostly written by writers of color. The list of books that are currently approved have only a mere sprinkling of writers of color, but therein lies the point of this law: to erase the color.
I guess that this essay is to talk about this: The oppressor works under the assumption of our ignorance and will do anything to keep us and our children ignorant. Our tools to fight against this are and have always been books and thought and words and language. It has been our stories. It is up to us to embrace the powerful tool of literacy that our ancestors risked their lives for, this powerful tool that can steer our youth to heights we never thought possible. Encourage it in everything. Shit, let them read this essay (you can cross out the curse words, but I’m sure they wouldn’t mind it).
Talk about it with them and never forget that reading is thought and thought is the one thing the oppressors can never control.
And thought? Thought is just the spark to a bigger flame.
And they are so afraid of our fire, babies.
Read on. Write on.