Something Needs to Change In Regard to How Literacy is Taught in U.S. Schools

Kirkland & Johnson’s article “‘We Real Cool’: Toward a Theory of Black Masculine Literacies” about the literacy practices of Black young men was simply fascinating.

The line on page 294, “To this point, Young (2004) has described Black male uniqueness as characterized through “a difference between Black boys and white boys”. For him, “Black boys not only feel coerced to give up their masculinity if they do well in school, but they also feel forced to abandon their race” (p. 700). This pressure that young Black men face to choose between a mainstream and fringe world, between race and educational rights, we argue, is the force motivating Black masculine literacies–literacy as practiced by the cool kids” really impacted me, I had to go back and read it over and over to really let that sink in.

A blog post released on March 1st explained functional illiteracy and how it affects people in their day-to-day lives.

I think that in the context of the Kirkland & Johnson article, that post is especially relevant. In our society, the ability to read and write is how our worth as humans is judged. And as I discussed in my past blog post about how literacy is used as a way to disadvantage minority groups, functional illiteracy is a huge factor in inner-city Black male lives.

And as Kirkland & Johnson show, a counter-culture has risen around literacy among young Black men. It has become a sort-of villain, a way for “The Man” to force them into a racist, unjust society. So in rebellion to “The Man”, young Black men have found themselves exploring literacy through clothing, music, and speech.

For speech specifically, African American Language (AAL) is an academically recognized dialect of English, yet it is seen by a lot of people as a way to determine someone’s education level. And I think that truth speaks to how our education system (de)values AAL speakers, specifically Black children/young adults.

There is a documentary series called “Talking Black in America” that I watched in my Folklore class, and it does a fantastic job of diving into Black speak and how it represents the broader Black culture in the US. One part of it, linked here, discusses how rap is a highly prized artistic expression of AAL within the Black community.

Kirkland & Johnson express in their piece that young Black men don’t reject literacy, they reject it’s traditional form. Literacy is found all over their culture, but that culture is a uniquely Black culture.

And in my opinion, it has been warped by a lot of people and media to portray Black literacy in negative light.

Something needs to change. I do believe that the U.S. education system values Standard American English above all other forms of English and systematically devalues other forms of English. The School-To-Prison pipeline is very real, and I think it at least partially a consequence of how we view SAE.

And I think that the conversation about how to adjust the school system is pretty overrun by people who don’t actually know much about other cultures.

So, something needs to change, and that change needs to begin with listening to the voices of other cultures in this country. We need to listen to people who have grown up in inner-city schools, and figure out how to connect with those children in a meaningful, impactful way.

Likewise, we need to give these children a voice and let them join the discussion in how to make a classroom more inviting and influential.

It is time to listen to what causes these problems, and make sure everyone is heard.