As a college junior that has had to navigate the daily obstacle course of a predominately white institution (PWI) as well as a declared English major that has had to succumb to the yearly syllabus with the writings of Shakespeare, Keats, and Wordsworth, I understand the feeling of embarrassment that comes along with the inability to fully grapple with theory and methods other students have been learning since high school.
Freshman year of college, I decided to be an English major because social justice and activism to me was not just walking through the streets with picket signs, it was the telling of our stories. I wanted to author experiences that could be reverberated around the world. However, when I went to class and I was handed my syllabus there was not one book by a Black author. Of course, there were plenty of old white men and a sprinkle of women but not one of us.
How can I possibly fully commit myself to a discipline where I did not see myself reflected?
Class after class, I fell deeper into a dismal place. I rarely raised my hand because I did not know the answer and at a competitive institution everyone is afraid to admit they do not know. It was in those moments I questioned everything. Is this the right major for me? Do I belong here?
However, it was the beginning of sophomore year and as required by professors, my homework was to peruse the syllabus. As I skimmed through it, I saw white author after white author after white author, but then my eye caught something. In the eighth week of the course, we would be reading Their Eyes Were Watching God by THE Zora Neale Hurston. I had heard about this book throughout high school and saw it on Essence Magazine’s Books to Read as a Young Woman but never got around to pick myself up a copy.
Hurston penned a coming of age story for every Black girl entering adulthood. The book is a promotion of female agency where the main character, Janie, left her husband when he was mistreating her and ran off with another man that provided her with the respect and stability she demanded. It also emphasizes the importance of Black female friendships—Janie would look to her friend Pheoby as her support through difficult times. Until that point, I had never known a book to so eloquently explain the complexities of the Black female experience.
Throughout the weeks we analyzed the book, my professor exclaimed that he had never seen such interest from me in the material, he praised my dissecting of the text and my papers scored higher than before.
Black literacy for me is seeing myself reflected in the syllabus, coursework, and other materials. It is feeling a connection with the authors and the ability to apply their words to my own experiences. From that moment, terms began to make sense and theory became clearer, all because I was able to have that beautiful moment of seeing myself reflected on those pages.
I would be remiss in acknowledging that the obstacles facing Black literacy are not just the lack of Black authors in our curriculum but it is the rate at which students are educated. According to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress 12th Grade Reading Level Assessment (2015), 46 percent of White students scored at or above proficient, just 17 percent of Black students and 25 percent of Latino students scored proficient.”
These are alarming rates especially following another study by McKinsey & Company, The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools, that states, “Black and Latino students are roughly two to three years of learning behind White students of the same age.”
Black and Latino students,who primarily make up the population of inner-city schools, are severely deprived of school funding. The difference between educational spending on an inner-city student and a suburban student can be up to $6,000 or more. One group is in invested in, the others are expected to fend for themselves.
Unfairly, Black and Latino students are underserved because of zip code and the long standing inability of the Department of Education to transparently grapple with the inequity of opportunity that was established and solidified by racist policies. This lack of equity materializes in less supplies, less extra-curriculars, less in-class help, and a less pleasurable academic experience. Black and Latino students are routinely placed at a disadvantage which results in limited career and academic opportunities post graduation, and eventually continues to deprive people of color of the opportunity to create a foundation of wealth and empowerment.
The inefficiency to read and comprehend disqualifies you in a multitude of ways, the simplest is the failure to complete a job application…or a voter registration form, a lease, or contract.
This issue is multifaceted and it must be tackled in an intentional way. Black literacy is not just what we are not taught, but the support necessary to ensure we have the skills we acquire are adequate enough to stand tall in a globally competitive world and workforce.