A Great Literacy Campaign for African America in the 21st Century

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The crisis in public education has been likened toa modern day Civil Rights crisis and a human rights tragedy. At center is the debate over educating ex-slaves. Big business insiders in seats of educational authority, like Arnie Duncan and Cathleen Black, demonstrate a corporatist shift in U.S. educational policy. Poverty and family dysfunction are blamed for Black underachievement ignoring the role of schools in serving the power elite.
As an institution of the state, public schools perform the function of labor sorting. In the global, post-industrial economy, the masses of Black children return to chattellike conditions and are sorted into increasingly privatized prisons where they become producers of low-cost commodities and consumers of incarceration-related debt.
The likelihood of incarceration correlates with 4th grade reading scores. Among 4th graders in Champaign-Urbana, 41% of African American students read below state standards compared to 15% of white students. These numbers closely approximate state figures where 44% African American and 16% white 4th graders read below standard.
Between 1980 and 2004, Illinois opened 21 prisons, bringing the total to 28. As of 2005, African Americans in Illinois were incarcerated at a rate of 2,020 per 100,000 population. Incarceration numbers mirror other social ills such as teenage pregnancy, un/underemployment, teen violence and drug use.
Educational crisis is not new to African America. Less than 60 years prior, in 1954, Brown struck down the 1896 Plessy aparteid doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ schooling.
Though Brown was of critical importance, it lacked the financial specificity to engender equality. The Blair Education Bill of 1880 could have addressed this. Sponsored by Republican Senator Henry Blair from New Hampshire, this bill would have mandated federal funding of public education using a formula based on illiteracy rates. Though its passage would have maintained separate schools, it would also have increased literacy for whites and Blacks, Blacks would have received greater benefits in a system with funding tied to actual need (as seen in illiteracy rates). Sadly, Blair was never enacted.
Most discussions over education ignore and obscure the richness of Black intellectual heritage. The great Islamic learning centers in Timbuktu and Djenne in the Malian Empire between the 15th and 17th centuries attracted enlightenment seekers from other parts of the world. Such attainments followed the intellectual prowess of ancient Egypt. More readily available to us, however, are the biographies of people like Phillis Wheatley, enslaved in the Gambia when she was 7, brought to New England, became proficient in English and Latin and was the first published African American. Many literate Africans disembarked in the Americas and found ways to preserve and perpetuate their literacy.
Education, beyond reading, writing and ciphering, was conceptualized as the transmission of intergenerational knowledge for individual and group survival. These literacies were developed in Sabbath schools through bible stories, songs, folklore, trickster narratives and adult modeling. Additionally, a number of whites were disposed to teach Blacks to read and write. Free Blacks started and maintained schools as early as 1790.
Following the unsuccessful revolts and inflammatory acts by literate men and women like Prosser, Vesey and Turner, Sojourner Truth, and Walker, prohibitions were placed on Black education. Blacks responded with improvisation, establishing schools in homes, church basements, barns, one room schoolhouses and even covered pits. Understanding the relationship between literacy and freedom resulted in radical interventions, even under the threat of death.
Since the early 20th century, citizenship and freedom schools have provided political education for African America. Following the Black Power/Black Arts Movements of the 70s and 80s, independent Black institutions formed across the U.S. These programs recognized the state’s usurpation of Black educational self-determinancy, particularly the role of the family, through compulsory, state sponsored education. Additionally, these schools produced outcomes that flew in the face of financiers and philanthropists who questioned the intellectual capacity of Blacks. A culturally centered approach recognizes all children’s ability to learn. These schools have produced students who display advanced academic, social and personal development; models that should be widely replicated in the 21st century literacy campaign.
Supplementary education is ubiquitous among immigrant groups in the UK as spaces for the preservation of their language, cultural practices, and rituals. Blacks from the Caribbean began creating supplementary schools in the 70s in response to the educational apartheid system they encountered. Large numbers of their children were arbitrarily assessed and labeled educationally subnormal and placed in special schools from which few were able to extricate themselves. The supplementary schools charge a modest fee to pay for specialty teachers and space, but for the most part they are supported by volunteers and donations. Saturday schools augment mainstream schools by providing instruction in core academic subjects as well as history and culture.
The Nubian African Community Foundation School, a Saturday school in southeast London, provided a community of caring adults to about 20 children. Classes began with a circle to learn and demonstrate communal values and engage in intergenerational dialogue. The remainder of the day was divided into 45 minute sessions of age appropriate group work in math, science, history, communications, and moral philosophy. They also shared a midday meal. Children ranged in age from 5 to 15. Mothers worked alongside younger children. Many of these programs offered adults classes on parenting, personal development, economic literacy, law, arts, history and culture.
A modern literacy movement should seek to develop intergenerational programs that draws on the cultural knowledge of the African American community, restores communal values and reclaims vital traditions such as rites of passages and life-cycle celebrations. An effective movement must be predicated on understandings of human similarities and diversity, incorporating principles of humanism and civility. It must proceed with the type of vigor and volunteerism witnessed in early African America, in Mao’s education initiatives, Castro’s campaign in Cuba and Freire’s work in Brazil’s favelas. Intervention sites include curricula, home schools, and community and school based youth development programs.
Public education should include community lectures, read-ins, adult literacy programs, and community based classes on topics relevant to African America. Blogs, websites, and social networking sites can provide additional spaces for radical interventions to animate and make accessible a Black public sphere. The cultural arts and performances also offer critical pedagogical spaces.
Education must, once again, be the singular focus of African Americans. Enhancing the educational achievement of African Americans enriches all. We must create a new, just social order. Embracing principles of truth, balance, order and reciprocity should be our guiding praxis in developing the human potential of all children.

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