Elimination Of Illiteracy Is As Serious An Issue To Our History As The Abolition Of Slavery -Maya Angelou
The name Bill Cosby elicits strong opinions and feelings; ranging from disappointment to anger. Mention The Cosby Show however (specifically amongst Black people), and you’ll find many strong opinions in the opposite direction—because many of us grew up watching the show.
One episode that sticks out is the episode where an underage young woman is to deliver her child yet is without family to be by her side. Dr. Huxtable finds her grandfather, Ray Palomino (played by Sammy Davis Jr.) to be with her during her delivery, but he cannot read. Mr. Palomino was in his late sixties and was illiterate, yet he promises to learn so that he can read to his great-grandchild.
The episode aired when I was 5 years-old so I didn’t quite understand the situation. When I re-watched the episode when in grade school, I understood enough to ask questions. My immediate question was why couldn’t this man read at his age? I was in the 3rd grade and I knew how to read; why didn’t he learn how to read in school?
As an adult, the focus of my questions changed and were aimed squarely at those responsible for educating Mr. Palomino.
My first thought was that Mr. Palomino was an Afro-Latino and even if he was 60 in 1989, he should have learned to read in the mid to late 1940’s. But the United States was a different place. A kid like Ray Palomino, in the 1940’s, was an afterthought outside his community. Depending on where he lived and who “taught” him, he probably fell through the cracks.
Why couldn’t this man read at his age? I was in the 3rd grade and I knew how to read; why didn’t he learn how to read in school?
What if he arrived to the United States with Spanish as his first language; were the structures in place to support his learning? If he did arrive speaking Spanish, could he read it?
What I realized for sure was that Mr. Palomino’s failing to read wasn’t his failure. It was the failure of those charged with his education. I am sure it’s natural for some to ask about the parents role in all of this; educators often ask—ask we must. Certainly, parents aren’t absolved from the struggles they may have a role in. However, as a parent, I recognize that there are circumstances and factors beyond our control that impact the rearing and educating of our children.
Racism being one such factor.
So, to read the story of 34-year-old Oliver James, a Black man that couldn’t read until recently, was no shock—because this is the United States. Yet I was filled with anger, followed by deep sorrow.
Mr. James was “functional” reader, meaning that he knew the alphabet and he remembered some words and their meaning. But reading a book or magazine, or simply reading for understanding at a store wasn’t something he could do. According to his story, in terms of fluency and comprehension, Mr. James was years behind his partner’s 10-year-old son.
Mr. James’ story was illuminated on his TikTok page as he hosted a live of himself, sharing that he couldn’t read, while checking out his first library book.
Why? How could this happen? It happened simply because Mr. James was at one point a young Black child, struggling with a disability.
Mr. James was with ADHD, and other learning disabilities as a child and was inserted in special education classes in his Bethlehem, PA school. He, and others like him, was segregated from his peers throughout his elementary school years. While in special education classes, Mr. James shared that the educators “put their hands” on the students. Mr. James shared that he “ended up getting restrained two, three, four, five times a day… It was torture.” Rather than learning how to read and progressing, Mr. James and his secluded peers filled in packets and when defiant, were met with “restraint” in the form of armlocks, chokeholds, and body slams.
That sounds less like school and more like the WWF.
Sadly, for Black children with disabilities, school may feel more like the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). Nationally, Black children with disabilities, like Mr. James at the time, are disproportionately restrained (physically and mechanically) and secluded than other children.
Physical restraint being a personal restriction that immobilizes or reduces the ability of a student to move his or her torso, arms, legs, or head freely. Meanwhile mechanical restraint being the use of devices as a means of restricting a student’s freedom of movement—including duct tape, straps, bungee cords, and ropes used to tie children to furniture or to tie body parts together; chairs and furniture that children are locked into; devices that restrain arms, legs, torsos, and other body parts; weighted materials; and similar mechanisms.
These experiences followed Mr. James as he grew. As well as the consequences of his illiteracy.
He was on the school-to-prison pipeline and sadly, but not unexpectantly, spent his early twenties in federal prison. According to the Department of Justice, at least a quarter of incarcerated adults spent their school years in special education.
Thankfully, Mr. James story doesn’t end with federal prison.
He’s a fitness instructor. He’s healthy physically and he’s getting healthy emotionally with the support of his partner, who, at the time of this piece, is pregnant with their first child together. Mr. James’ vulnerability on social media translated into hundreds of thousands of followers. He’s an influencer. That influence hasn’t come without the ignorance, presumptuousness and privilege of the many white people who follow him, yet Mr. James is striving.
However, for every Oliver James and Ray Palomino, who find their way in an anti-Black society that directly or indirectly abused them to the point of trauma, there are those who do not find their way because they’ve been suffocated. Stories like these, sadly, continue to happen because Black children are being suffocated by people who don’t see their genius.
For some, schools are killing factories where their spirits go to die. This should never be and yet it is.
The question is, what do we do about this? How does this reality for so many get changed? The answer is both simple and hard… that is, we must continue to fight for Black children. Advocate that more Black teachers are inserted in classrooms, demand that teachers become culturally fluent and culturally responsive in their pedagogy and with their instruction. Pack school board meetings to demand what your child needs, just like white parents who attend board meetings in an attempt to take those very things away.
Become an advocate for your children and the children of your community. It may take a village to raise a child, but it is the responsibility of the community to educate a child. Let’s be the community that our community needs.