Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Something Was Missing

I knew something was missing on Friday night when I was in that packed Potter Party at my local Barnes & Noble store. Yes, something was definitely missing, but I couldn't put my finger on what it was. It was only when I started to sort through the pictures while thinking about which ones I wanted to use for this post that the answer finally hit me...almost no black children or parents to be seen anywhere. Why is that? Is it that the Harry Potter series doesn't appeal to that group of readers or is it that black children read that much less than children of other races? How sad for all involved, if it's the latter.

Anthony Asadullah Samad, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum, believes that it is time for black parents to do something about what he sees as a disturbing trend among black readers, especially young boys.
They used to say that if you want to hide something from black people, put it in a book. I can tell you, having moderated panels on both coasts (the Harlem Book Fair and the first Leimert Park Book Festival) in the past month, that, for the most part, a lot of black people are reading. It's what they're reading (fiction, romance, erotica) that might be of concern, but at least some are reading. The African-American market is the "growth market" for the book industry.

There is an exception. Young black boys. Several national surveys have stated that black boys (ages 13-24) are not reading books. An amazing 54% of young boys under 15 years of age (more than half of school aged boys) have never read a book. Most of them drop out of school because they're made to read books. Literary is a crisis in the black community, even though some suggest we're in the midst of a new "black literary renaissance." 70% of black boys/men (high school and college) 21 and under, claim to have read at least one book in their lives, but most can't recall the title. Most of them have read newspapers (mostly sport pages, and magazines), but don't know the pleasure of reading a book. Their leisure (and study) time is spent watching "channel zero" (television) playing video games or on-line. How do we rationalize, as a race and a culture, not exposing our children to literature? I believe that for every video game a child has, they should have two books.
Since I was in my mid-20s, I made a habit of buying a book a week, and trying to read a book a week (it's more like a book a month now). The point is, however, reading became a habit for me. As much a habit as working, exercising, advocating, "getting busy" and sleeping, reading, and subsequently-studying, has always been somewhere in the mix. It became part of my socialization. We have to make reading part of young black male's socialization. We have to ask them, not "Wassup?" but "What you read lately?

Make 'em respond too. Stop showering our young boys with toys, and clothes and electronic gadgets. Shower them with books. Hold them hostage on the other stuff until they read a book. Want some $150 sneakers? Read $150 worth of books. Want a $40 video game? Yeah, after you buy $40 worth of books.

Want $2000 rims? Hell, you can buy a library for $2,000-that's about a book a week. Young people's favorite saying is, "Don't get it twisted." They definitely got it twisted. What they think is important is not really important. What they think has value, don't have the value to take them where they now to go. Now, we have to twist them back. We have to show them what real value is. It needs to start with reading a book.
Sadly enough, even in a book crowd the size of the one I was in Friday night, I recall seeing only a handful of black customers: two teenage boys who seemed to be there separately, a young couple with no children in sight, and a father with two cute little girls in hand. Dr. Samad is right. Something has to be done to inspire kids to read, and that something has to start with parents. Today's black culture does not seem to reward reading the way that it did in previous generations and that is a terrible disservice to its young people. I hope that Dr. Samad's message is taken to heart by black parents everywhere because children aren't likely to become readers without some inspiration from their parents and educators.


  1. Thanks for that perspective. I run a used book shop just south of Montreal. Our black population here may only be in the 20% range but in 3 years of being open we have had 0 black male customers. (avg about 15 visitors per day). Of course young men of any type rarely come by, kind of sad and a bit worrisome.

  2. Well, Oprah is doing her part. Maybe she can get "Fiddy" on board to attract all the mini-gangstas. (not holding my breath...)

  3. Bruce, I'm amazed by "zero" black male customers in the whole three years that you've been open for business there. That pretty much verifies my experience and what the author of this piece is saying...very sad.

  4. Sylvia, I probably shouldn't say this because I'm an outsider looking in, BUT, in my opinion that whole hip hop culture has done more to set back young blacks in the last decade or so than everything else combined that might negatively impact them.

    Black leadership needs to find some way of neutralizing the influence of those thugs before a whole generation is might already be too late, actually, for one generation.

  5. This is a very interesting (and discouraging) issue. It makes me wonder what percentage of customers for online book retailers are African American.

    It occurs to me that many bookstores might (entirely unintentionally, I suspect, and possibly despite strenuous efforts on the managers' parts to attract a greater diversity of customers) project the impression of homogeneous whiteness that makes them uncomfortable for black readers. Comic book stores have been grappling with a similar issue in terms of making women feel welcome in what can see to be a very masculine, closed club, but is in fact a cultural arena eager for greater diversity among its artists and readers.

    Certainly one approach is to ask black leadership to address the question of why there is a reading crisis amongst young black men, especially when the African American literary tradition is so rich. Perhaps greater institutional support of writing and literature programs for teenagers would be another approach. But I think that it is also worth reflecting on how bookstores present themselves to first time customers, and what programs they could engage in that would reach out to members of their communities who may be ignored at the moment.

  6. I'd have to agree about the deeply negative impact of hip hop. So sad to see musical talent used to glorify felonious activities. And then there's the language. I don't mean the profanity, I mean the bad pronunciation and grammar. Surely that must affect their ability to read standard English...?

  7. Is it possible that we let too many generations of young black students pass through poorly-funded school systems with too little encouragement? (Without meaning to put words into your mouth, Sam, I think that is what I took away from your entry.)

    I don't mean to suggest that individuals have no personal responsibility for learning, but expecting kids who barely can get through schoolwork because of poor classroom conditions to turn into lifelong readers seems unlikely at best.

  8. Interesting topic. There are similar issues here with respect to Aboriginal children. And, again there is a sizeable body of work by Aboriginal writers, including playwrights and poets.

    Yes, I think they are schooling-related and class in terms of poverty - - it's really hard to be able to read in chaotic and over-crowded housing. Sure, there are always the lone exceptions, but as a group, not so easy.

    Literacy and library programs from birth and throught childhood, with preschools and school as the key have to be a large part of the solution - the very programs that get cut when there are squeezes on. And it has to involve the families as well - again these sort of programs always seem to start in a blaze of publicitry with "seed funding" , report husge success, and then are assumed to be able to stand on their own, and the money dries up, ior the instigator moves on and the whole thing collapses.

  9. '' my opinion that whole hip hop culture has done more to set back young blacks in the last decade or so than everything else combined that might negatively impact them.''

    I concur Sam. Why don't these self elected 'black leaders' eg Jesse Jackson, come out and condemn this hip hop music for the vile filth it is?
    If I was some sort of conspiracy theory nut I could almost believe this music was invented by the KKK because it keeps black youngsters stupid.
    Rant over!

  10. Interesting thoughts, Pour, and I do wonder if that's part of the problem, but I don't think that young black males are being "scared away" by bookstore presentation because it doesn't sound as if they are even coming through the front door very often. I've seen bookstores try to appeal to minority readers, especially Afican-Americans, by setting up special sections in the stores for books that the store managers think would appeal to them. But from the level of "trash" that appears in most of those displays I think that I would be insulted if I were a black customer.

    Thanks for the comments.

  11. Sylvia, I find that whole hip hop culture to be so sad because of the way that it has lowered standards and influenced young black kids, especially the boys. They have become brainwashed to believe that life is all about the "bling" and sex they can consume. The thug mentality and the level of violence glorified by that music and culture (especially as directed against women) is repulsive and those people will have a lot to answer for someday when blame for the destruction of black society is finally pinned on them.

  12. Jill, poor schooling is definitely part of the problem...or is it a symptom of the problem? I don't know sometimes. So many of today's students, of all races, have no respect for learning, teachers or each other that the schools are fighting a losing battle from the first day that they receive those "students." They are not being prepared by their parents before they get to school and their teachers get no parental support once they arrive in school. It's disturbing and it's up to parents and black leaders to do something about it before the next generation is lost to that hip hop pimp culture they so love to celebrate.

  13. I agree with you, Sally, but I think that no fundamental change is possible without family support and creating that seems to be the biggest problem that society has in breaking this cycle.

    It is very sad, as you say, to see these special programs start in a blaze of glory, only to fizzle out when everyone quits paying attention again. These kids deserve better, and it breaks my heart to watch them struggle to better themselves without realizing that education is the key to all of their goals.

    In this area, I've seen first-hand a large number of "damaged" students whose mothers were on drugs of various sorts while pregnant with them. Those kids have such terrible learning disabilities that they don't stand much of a chance of ever recovering from what was done to them before they were even born...sadly, the majority of those kids whom I've worked with are black.

  14. Nick, the problem here is that those black "leaders" who get all the publicity are pretty much in it only for what they, themselves, can get out of it.

    They refuse to listen when someone like Bill Cosby speaks out about their poor parenting skills and the problems with a culture that so glorifies the hip hop lifestyle. In fact, I'm sure you remember how they attacked Cosby rather than listen to him. They went so far as to say that he embarrassed them by bringing this out into the open the way he did. THEY are the embarrassment.