The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass stated, “it is easier to build strong children than it is to repair broken men.”
Recent research has drawn correlations between literacy rates, drop out rates and incarceration rates. The study shows that if a young male of color has not learned to read by the third grade he is 20 times more likely to be incarcerated. If he drops out of high school then he is 50% more likely to be incarcerated during his adulthood.
During the times of slavery, slaveholders would prevent slaves from learning how to read as a method of maintaining control and superiority. In his autobiography, “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” the author describes how slaveholders gain and keep power over slaves from birth through adulthood. Slave owners would keep slaves ignorant of basic facts about themselves, such as their birth date and lineage. This would rob children of their natural sense of individual identity. As slave children grew older, slave owners would prevent them from learning how to read and write, as literacy would give them a sense of self‑sufficiency and capability. Slaveholders understood that literacy would also lead slaves to question the right of slaveholders to keep slaves. Finally, by keeping slaves illiterate, Southern slaveholders maintain control over what the rest of America knows about slavery because if slaves cannot write then their side of the slavery story might not be told.
As these are the facts, tell me then, why is it that we live in an age where it is more likely for an individual to know what’s trending on ESPN, Twitter or World Star Hip-Hop than it is to know what is written in the 13th amendment? The 13th amendment abolished slavery in the United States and provides that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” That is to be interpreted that a free person cannot be made a slave unless said person is incarcerated.
Incarceration… Slavery by another name.
The privatization of correctional facilities has turned out to be quite profitable with the systemic incarceration of young men of color in disadvantaged areas of United States of America. This disparity is outlined beautifully by Michelle Alexander in her book ” The New Jim Crow”. The research showing the correlation between literacy rates, dropout rates and incarceration is being used to predict how many more correctional facilities will need to be built in the future. Unless we make it a point to get serious about making sure our boys learn to read before third grade and get serious about their education and graduating with a high school diploma and beyond, then the chances are they will serve as occupants for these correctional quarters.
There are many men of color who have already fallen into the circumstance of illiteracy, lack of education and even incarceration. To them I say, all hope is not lost. Your life matters. You can still learn to read where you are. Learn to read so that our boys can see you read; so that you can read to them and encourage them to read. If we want to see change in our communities then we have to be the change. We have to move out of our comfort zones. We have to change. It starts with us. We can save our boys from being the new slaves by simply reading to them and teaching them that reading is freedom.
I will stand up for literacy because I have experienced the freedom that can be found in reading a good book. In the words of the great Frederick Douglass, “once you learn to read, you are forever free.”
-Brian Douglas White