The Community Saturday School and the Ongoing Campaign for Literacy

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“History has shown that, up to the present time, revolutionary regimes have been the only ones capable of organizing successful mass literacy campaigns. From the Soviet Union to China, from Vietnam to Cuba, all revolutionary governments have given high priority to the war on illiteracy.” — Le Thanh Khoi, Literacy Training and Revolution: The Vietnamese Experience

In the early 90s, when 82 year-old Ms. Lennie was asked how she would define literacy as a black person, she said, “let’s say it’s reading; let’s say it’s writing or knowing how to survive in this world—and most of all knowing how to combine all of these things so that you appreciate who you are as a Black person and so you never forget your history. You understand?”

African Americans have waged a long, hard fought battle for literacy. Beginning in the slave quarters, members of the community transmitted cultural and survival knowledge through songs, folktales, and personal experience. When Black literacy was outlawed, the enslaved found creative ways to become literate, learning in secret under threat of death. Post-emancipation, one of the primary goals of the formerly enslaved was to build schools and hire teachers which the Black community personally funded. The educational self-determination and autonomy carried forward into the Black Power Movement when independent Black schools sprang up across the country.

The current problems surrounding the education of Black children are being called the civil and human rights crisis of our time. Schools serving them are being shuttered in tandem with the building of prisons that house predominantly Black bodies. Neoliberal privatization, corporate control of the curriculum, school funding that continues to rely on tax bases, and overseas job flight ensure that Black students will be educated to work in a service economy. A narrow curriculum focused on testable subjects, denies poor and working class children a liberal arts education. Black children seldom see themselves adequately and accurately represented in texts and materials.  Zero tolerance policies lead to disproportionate discipline rates for Black children with a large majority giving up and dropping out. The sour note in the myth of American Exceptionalism continues to be the inability of Black students to meet and exceed standards in core subjects. Achievement gaps and mandates, like No Child Left Behind, are signifiers for Black intellectual and cultural deficits that are proliferated through the media almost daily.

Black mothers are targeted as the reason why their children fail to thrive, as the reason they arrive at school with limited vocabularies and without the proper intellectual and behavioral skill sets to be successful in schools. The mother’s lack of education is blamed, ignoring the fact that many illiterate mothers have raised brilliant children. Missing from the Black mother shame-blame game is the biological impact of racism and the effects of stress on both mothers and children from living in impoverished, violent, overcrowded neighborhoods.

Black women across class have higher rates of infant mortality, premature deliveries, and low-birth weight babies. Low birth weights and premature births are said to have direct impacts on children’s later cognitive development. Additionally, mothers with diets deficient in polyunsaturated fatty acids and Omega 3, women who are depressed, and those who suffer from chronic stress also negatively affect the cognitive development of their children in utero. Thus, racism and intergenerational trauma of social inequality is implicated in the poor academic performance of Black children.

In October, 2010, the National Institutes of Health published an article entitled, “Improving Mothers’ Literacy Skills May Be Best Way to Boost Children’s Achievement.” They concluded that programs to boost the academic achievement of children from low income neighborhoods might be more successful if they also provided adult literacy education to parents. Saturday schools are a vehicle to address family literacy.

Why Saturday schools?

Saturday schools are not new. The Japanese have historically schooled on Saturdays, and the local Asian communities conduct weekend schools. In the UK, where many former colonial subjects relocated following WWII and various independence movements, supplementary Saturday schools provide spaces for intergenerational transmission of customs and practices, as well as support for mainstream curriculum using culturally-responsive teaching methods. Currently, there are over 1,000 weekend schools in the UK. Supplementary schools are literacy sites that support the autonomy and self-determination of cultural groups.

The Black supplementary school movement in London was a response to the disproportionate exclusion of Caribbean children from mainstream schools. The UK’s Black population had rapidly increased following the Windrush era when Caribbean laborers were recruited to aid in the rebuilding of post-WWII England resulting in a virulent, anti-Black response. In 1971, Bernard Coard wrote a pamphlet entitled, How the West Indian child is made educationally subnormal in the British school system in which he urged Black parents to organize and start supplementary, Saturday schools. Many of these schools have been in existence for over 30 years. Several programs offer classes for parents.

The Community Saturday School

On February 1, 2014, the Community Saturday School will commence at B.T. Washington Elementary School. The free program for African American children and their families will run for 12 Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., offering literacy instruction and arts classes. The program will focus on character building and personal development. Each morning participants along with parents and other adults will engage in group activities designed to foster personal development and enhance a sense of community. The Saturday school will take a culturally-centered approach to teaching Black history and culture. There will be five groups of age-level morning literacy classes: mothers and their children ages 2-4, mothers and children ages 5-7, students 8-10, middle-schoolers, and high school. These classes will use a variety of texts to teach the spectrum of Black history. The afternoon session will be dedicated to arts classes in the following areas: creative writing, drumming, photography, visual arts, dance, and performance. Classes will be taught by professional and youth instructors who’ve achieved recognition for their talent.

The Community Saturday School is partially funded by a grant from the Office of Public Engagement at the University of Illinois in collaboration with Professor Violet Harris in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Participation in the inaugural 12 week session is limited due to funding, but we are looking for other community partners to expand the program.

The Community Saturday School is a space for the development of communal literacy, taking a holistic approach developing participants culturally, spiritually, physically, and intellectually. In saying “community” the idea is that of the village that is necessary in raising the child. The village can also be seen as a maroon community engaged in active resistance to the alienating, instrumentalizing effects of schooling within an unequal, capitalist society while proactively affirming autonomy and the power of culture.

We call on those honored ancestors who persevered in the face of death to create sites for personal and collective development. We must see the struggle for literacy as nothing short of the struggle for our very lives. A luta continua!

For more information contact: Dr. Amira Davis,

Amira Davis is a mother, artist, educator, and independent scholar whose current interest is culturally-centered, supplementary schooling.


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