This analytical piece is centered around four literacy narratives that are housed in the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives. The four stories are of individuals that courageously shared their lives with students in order to contribute to the vast research that is conducted on literacy in America. My small research project pulls from literacy narratives of Reverend Melvin Stewart, Marshawn McCarrell, Victoria Dunn, and Nerma Cockrell. Even with the small about of research I conducted, similar patterns of literacy being a driving point of social mobility were present.
“Literacy As Power”
Literacy is no longer just the backbone of societies, it is a means by which individuals can escape the situation they were given, and leap into realms of newly found opportunity. The Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives houses the stories of so many. This particular piece will be focussing on a collection titled “Black Columbus”. Within this collection, there are stories of how literacy changes lives, stories of how literacy gives a voice, and stories of how literacy is power. The cohort of four literacy narratives I have studied contains a reverend, a writing teacher, a daughter of the Civil Rights Movement, and a spoken word poet. These stories are powerful, moving, and extremely wide-ranging in what they cover. Critical Race Theory and Sponsors of Literacy are analytical lenses I will embed into my analysis. The literacy narratives have underlying themes of pursuits of clarity, breaks from poverty, and stories of how literacy gives an opportunity to disadvantaged people of Columbus, people of Ohio, and people of the world at large. All of the literacy narrative authors share Columbus as home, and they all share the message that the opportunity for literacy may come and go in a fleeting moment so it must be taken advantage of, and when this is done literacy has the power to be a tool for social mobility.
Reverend Melvin Stewart of Columbus talked about the blunt reality of our education system. He saw literacy sponsorship as something that can be unachievable due to, “Young people are not prepared to learn. They are hungry, they are sick”. Literacy is absolutely pivotal to one’s success in society and he pointed out that there is inequality all throughout our system. The chances of success are limited due to the lack of exposure to opportunity. Marshawn McCarrell, an Ohio Poet and member of the Ohio Student Association, developed his literacy through raw human experience. He talks about the boundaries that exist for youth of the inner city. He mentions how literacy is difficult to attain, that experiences are unequal, and that art form is nearly impossible to showcase if you are from a disadvantaged background.
Victoria Dunn broke literacy sponsorship down to the availability of funding, telling the interviewer that “if money wasn’t a worry, students would be able to constantly have a pursuit of clarity”. She described a “pursuit of clarity” as her definition for literacy and true knowledge. When thinking about how literacy is funded, an essay about sponsorship tells that “the competition to harness literacy, to manage measure, teach, and exploit it, has intensified throughout the century”(Brandt 169). Sponsorships of literacy make it so that literacy is not relayed and shared equally, but rather is something that everyone must fight for access to. The essay goes onto say that “literacy sponsors are so crucial for political and economic well-being”(Brandt 169). Dunn points out that money, funding, and opportunity are not equal, but when students have the chance for an education they must not miss it. Nerma Cockrell’s literacy is a direct result of her mother as her literacy sponsor. Nerma said, “I am a result of those experiences. I am a result of the fight for freedom. And I don’t waste a single chance”. Nerma and Victoria both valued their chance for literacy and believed they owed it to the sponsors that worked effortlessly to get them where they are today. Every day when Nerma encountered literacy practices, she remembered what their mother went through to give her the opportunities she is able to have now.
(Pictures retrieved from the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives of Columbus Residents, Reverend Melvin Stewart, and Marshawn McCarrell)
Reverend Stewart’s literacy journey began at the age of 16, when he attempted to enlist in the Air Force. He scored the second highest score in the city even without a high school diploma. As his literacy and education continued, he became the first black prison guard in the Air Force, and now owns a “quarter million corner business” as he describes it. Despite Reverend Stewart’s adversity, he succeeded. Melvin Stewart now attempts to bridge the gap of educators and urban students through mentoring current teachers. He realizes that segregation of ideas, thoughts, and lived experiences are present. His hope is to teach teachers where their students are coming from, and circumstances that may challenge their opportunity to focus on literacy in class, “These are the things they [teachers] don’t understand. He’s [the student] sleeping in school because last night he was hiding under his bed. He was getting away from the shooting and the drugs and so forth”. What was very prevalent within this literacy narrative was that systematic racism plays a key role within his upbringing and his experience with literacy. A similar story was found from a man named Marshawn McCarrell that is two generations younger, proving that racism is a permanent system throughout generations of American lives. A founding father of The Critical Race Theory was quoted saying, “racism is a permanent component of American Life” (DeCuir and Dixson 27). Using a “critique of liberalism”, when analyzing these narratives, the viewer must understand that situations and circumstances vary greatly for different groups. Both of these men have gone through experiences that made their literacy more difficult to attain, and they both work to improve literacy access to people that are born into similar situations as them. Color Blindness cannot be applied when comparing these men’s literacy narratives to those who are of a different race. These men shared a similar struggle in their literacy experiences and work effortlessly to bring opportunities to those that need it most. Relating the permanence of systematic racism and availability to education and literacy to what black business and economies look like, research conducted by Walker (2004) synthesized that “black business activity from 1939 to 2001 changed very little, particularly regarding the kinds of enterprises established, the consumer markets reached by these enterprises, and the form of business ownership” (110). This evidence even further exemplifies just how unequally our systems are set up and how entirely valuable the two men’s work in mentorship is.
Two other narratives cover the significance of systematic racism, the development of opportunity, and the presence of literacy exposure within the life stories of Victoria Dunn and Nerma Cockrell. Both of these women made clear that education is a privilege and that the opportunity to improve one’s literacy cannot and should not be wasted. So much of their own accounts of their lives harped on the fact that they seized every opportunity that they could, and without that mentality, so many wonderful experiences would have been lost. Nerma Cockrell shared similar experiences about her literacy. She grew up in rural Mississippi and her mother was a freedom fighter in the civil rights movement. This heavily impacted her views on literacy and just how hard she would work. Her mother came into class to teach all the Caucasian students about The Civil Rights Movement and what her life really meant. A fear of hers is that students today are not treating literacy like her generation did. She believes, “Everyone is wasting their time. We have this insane opportunity to learn literacy and students are wasting”. Now she teaches writing because she wants to “support every student I can because there was a time when we didn’t have this chance”.
(Pictured is Victoria Dunn and Nerma Cockrell sharing their stories of valuing opportunities in the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives)
Within the stories of these individuals are lessons that parlay the significance of literacy in giving opportunity. Literacy can give opportunity in all sorts of ways. Economic, political, and social are just the beginning. The importance of literacy is that it gives the unheard a voice, it gives the powerless power, and it gives the artist a platform to perform. It must be remembered, however, that literacy is not attained on an equal playing field, and that opportunities are extremely skewed to the advantaged populations. These literacy narratives give clues to what systematic racism look like, what has been fought for, and why opportunities to obtain literacy cannot be missed.
Brandt, Deborah. Sponsors of Literacy. College Composition and Communication, Vol. 49, No. 2 (May, 1998), pp. 165-185. National Council of Teachers of English, 1998.
Cockrell, Nerma. Story of My Life. Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives.
DeCuir, J. and Dixson, A. “So When It Comes Out,They Aren’t That Surprised That It Is There”: Using Critical Race Theory as a Tool of Analysis of Race and Racism in Education. pp. 26-30. Educational Researcher, 2004.
Dunn, Victoria. The Power of Words. Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives.
McCarrel, Marshawn. A Conversation With… Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives.
Stewart, Melvin. With God All Things are Possible. Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives.