Thursday, February 28, 2008

Black College Students, Reading, and the Death of the Book

I have been very quiet lately and not posting. The deadline for my book is quickly approaching, and I am overwhelmed with too much teaching and not enough time to think. I am not disputing that there is thinking involved in teaching. But I have been shanghaied with issues that should not arise when students enroll in a college-level course. Thus, I have concluded that some of the stereotypes about African American students are true. I am going to share one with the hopes that those of you who read my blog and have children, particularly college-aged children, will heed my warning. I want to begin by creating a context for my frustration, and that context emanates from my personal and family milieu.

It was unheard of in my parents' household to be poorly read. That is, my siblings and I were introduced to classical western literature before we began school: from Grimm's to Aesop's tales. As we aged, my mother purchased a set of "The Book House for Children," which, if my memory serves me correctly, contained full-text of some of the better known stories in World literature. By the time I was in the 6th grade, my context for literature became the Great Books, as well as fiction, poetry and drama by African American writers. Our winter nights were often spent reading and talking, with my mother insisting that one of her four children run downstairs and pull a book off the shelf to support the point that she was attempting to prove. The winter when I was 18, my mother instructed all of us to read Dostoyevski, Camus, and Hesse; she must have been going through a existentialist phase. I matriculated in advance English classes in high school despite being enrolled in chemical-biological studies curriculum. I was raised to revere the sacredness of the written text. And my siblings and I were information connoisseurs. I know that my mother spent the majority of the family's disposable income on books. My mother always told me if I could read and comprehend what I read, I could accomplish anything.

I have taught at two research one universities that recruit from America's best and brightest students. I now teach at Howard University, that ideally, recruits the world's best and brightest students of African descent. I also teach at a community college where my students possess a range of aptitudes and levels of commitment to their education.

While teaching at the University of Michigan and University of Rochester, I never had to wrestle with students to purchase their books, or to read. Yes, these were predominately white institutions with a handful of Black students. However, even my Black students came prepared to work. In fact, having me in front of the classroom as their professor often gave the one or two African American students in the class a level of comfort that allowed them to reveal their intellectual prowess without fear of reprisal. I often marveled at how well-read my Black students were at these universities.

But my experiences at Howard University and Prince George's Community College, with majority Black student populations, have been quite different. If I were not African American, I would swear that the majority of Black students don't read.

Yes, you read me right.

It is the seventh and eighth week of classes at Prince George's Community College and Howard University, respectively, and students are still telling me that they do not have their books. And this is a normal occurrence. After hearing this confession yesterday, with both students pronouncing that they didn't have their books as if it were a badge of honor, I lost it. I pointed out to one of the students that she had an eighteen karat gold serpentine chain around her neck and the other had a brand new Blackberry. I told them that their priorities were misguided. Both students expressed the fact that their parents did not give them money to buy books. While I won't test the efficacy of their statements, the mere fact that both these undergraduate girls expressed this sentiment speaks loudly about the environments from which they have come.

My wonderful colleague and poet, E. Ethelbert Miller, interceded, and began asking the girls simple, but revealing, questions: 1. Are there books in your households? 2. Did you go to the library as a child? 3. Do your parents read? 4. Do you have your own library? The students' responses to these questions revealed that they had not been reared or educated in an environment where there was a respect for reading. I concluded that some of us are rearing our children and sending them off to college without a healthy respect for the place of reading, in learning and in their lives.

While I am far more tolerant of my students in the community college who are less likely to read a short story I assign since the majority of the students are at the college because they have not proven to be high academic achievers, I am intolerant of my students at Howard University, who are supposed to represent our communities' best and brightest. Like so many blacks in my generation, Howard University has been positioned as the Harvard of the HBCUs. Although it may be somewhat conceivable for a white student to matriculate and graduate from Harvard without reading, I don't have a Black friend who graduated from Harvard without reading. In fact, all of my friends and colleagues who are Harvard alumni are avid readers. I know that the majority of my students at Howard would not last one semester at Harvard without reassessing their commitment to reading, attending classes, studying, and improving their writing skills.

Ethelbert told me that I was educating the future leaders. I challenged him on this fact. I have not come across any future leaders among my students at Howard University. They do not read, they barely attend class, and they do not possess the writing skills that will make them competitive or successful outside of Howard University. My colleague told me that too many of the Howard professors don't demand academic rigor from the students. This perplexes me since so many of the faculty, like myself, have graduated from universities where academic rigor was a prerequisite for not only matriculating, but also for graduating. Then I must ask myself, have my colleagues also stopped demanding academic rigor of themselves?

So I have sounded off. If you are one of my friends with children and you do not have any books in your house, shame on you. If you send your children off to college without money to purchase their books, double shame on you. Our kids will not be competitive in a world that still revers the book, critical thinking, and excellent writing skills. The educated elite will always have access to elite positions in the job market, the better graduate schools, and a higher quality of life. Race will somewhat impede our children's access to this world, but not reading will certainly deny them access completely. While the book may be dying in some areas of Western culture, the elite will always revere the book. Get over it, and make your children readers before it's too late. And ask yourself, when was the last time you read a book for sheer pleasure? Remember our children learn from our examples.


Anonymous said...

I do not disagree with you comments about African American students and the effort they put into an education. I however must state this is not an African American dis ease but an American one.

Students from all walks of life put less emphasis on eduction than did their foreparents. TV has been used as a babysitter for the last 40 years and we are reaping the effects of that.

Blaming someone else for our problems and shortcomings is a popular pasttime and supported by the Jerry Springers, Dr. Phils' etc of the air.

If you'd ask did moms or pops give the girls money to buy the "Crackberry" or the chain the answer would probably been no as well, but to blame someone else is easier than taking the responsiblity.

We live in world where to get great riches for little effort is flaunted in front of the masses and we are stupid enough to buy into that.

As an instructor, as difficult as it may be, you should help these chillun see that using their minds is admirable and a worthwhile pursuit. I havs succeeded in doing that (most times) and the rewards for the students, their families and their children is too great to risk.

I know you are that kind of instructor and it gets frustrating many times, I just ask that you and your fellow professors, keep the faith and continue to reach and push for excellence in your students and not do like so many of the instructors before you have done and pass the students merely because it is the easy thing to do.


Brandi said...

I must state that I believe this not to be a race issue instead it is a class issue... it is sad to say but there is class in america and it is not directly correlated to income. Families at an early age demonstrate to their children what is of greatest importance. Did they spend time at Saks/Macy's or Barnes & Nobles/Border's as they grew up.

I would argue that at predominantly white community colleges and state colleges kids are behaving in much the same way as the Howard students. It must be said that while Howard calls itself "HARVARD" the vast majority of it's students would not be accepted into Harvard.

As African-Americans accumulate more wealth it becomes imperative that we focus our kids towards activities that also allow for sustainment of that wealth. Instead what we begin to see are "rich" parents whose kids are CLUELESS, cannot read, or who simply don't value reading! But again I argue that it is due to an inability to bridge the class gap.... not strictly due to race! Because as you stated.... you always read as a child.... just food for thought!

M. L. Simms said...

Thanks for your comments.

I agree that it is not a race issue, that the problem is, in fact, class. And as one who does their work in race and class studies, I know that income does not directly correlate into class. However, since I have had the opportunity to work with black and white, middle- and upper-class students, I am fully taken aback by the way that Black students, in particular, do not read. When I teach African-American literature, particularly the slave and freedom narratives, I over-emphasize the struggles that Douglass, Jacobs, and Equaino encountered and overcame in order to gain literacy. I break down the slave and black codes to my students to let them know how this country systematically and legally prohibited the majority of blacks from reading and having an access to education. Then we discuss the current impediments to reading and an education, and sometimes the light bulb goes off. However, these conversations don't always translate into my students purchasing their books and reading.

But a good thing happened today; one of my students took my textbook from my desk during a conference. I am so proud of him or her, and I won't even make the swiping of my textbook an issue. Because gaining literacy and access to texts by any means necessary is my motto and the creed by which I conduct my life.

Anonymous said...

Shelley, I agree with you. While an argument can be made regarding whether this is a class issue or a race issue, or perhaps a combination of both, I submit to you that the failure to read and thus the underdeveloped ability to comprehend what must be read, is more detrimental to the African-American students than Causasian (White)students! Why? Simply because African-American students are more subject to suffer from environmental retardation than White students due to the basic structure of our society in general. Couple this with the absent of a desire and/or the ability to read and you have a prevailing condition that can be rightfully labeled as predominately an African-American "disease", unfortunately. Many times, one's survival at a minimum acceptable level in our society depends on one's ability to read and comprehend what must be read. And African-Americans generally are not afforded "any slack" within this ever-present societal competitive environment.