Collection sounds the alarm about the decline of black literacy

  • Article by: JOSEPH P. WILLIAMS JR. , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 25, 2011 - 3:04 PM

Thirteen black writers talk about the power of reading in their lives, and lament the decline in their community.

The Word, edited by Marita Golden

Marita Golden's new book, "The Word: Black Writers Talk About the Transformative Power of Reading and Writing," has an unwieldy title reminiscent of a graduate seminar in 20th-century African-American literature, syllabus included.

The book's spare form -- Golden's one-on-one interviews with 13 black literature heavyweights, laid out in a Q-and-A format -- brings to mind a panel discussion in an ivy-covered campus library. And at the end of each interview, Golden lists the books her subjects think every reader should have on the shelf, ranging from black-lit chestnuts like Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God" to lesser-known books like "Factotum," by poet/author Charles Bukowski.

Upon closer inspection, Golden, an author and self-proclaimed bibliophile, has other purposes in mind: ringing the alarm about the sharp decline in African-American literacy, and indicting the iPod, the Internet and the entertainment-industrial complex for its demise.

In the interviews, her subjects -- many of whom, like Golden, are college professors -- tell of their love for reading and their discovery of writing at early ages. But they also bemoan students ignorant of the classics like Richard Wright's "Black Boy" or Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon," or even the Bible. And, they say, it's not unusual to find some who can't assemble an essay without cut-and-paste help from Wikipedia.

Golden frames the issue as a national problem, but an African-American crisis. Despite Barnes & Noble bookstores in nearly every mall, small bookstores and libraries are no longer important public spaces, and the black dropout rate is edging toward all-time highs -- a bitter irony, she notes, since slaves who learned to read were often killed.

Yet as the urgency grows, Golden writes, "I have yearned to hear the voices of African-American writers as part of the dialogue" on declining American literacy.

The people Golden selected serve as samples of the African diaspora, and she elicits from them deeply personal stories that also broadly illustrate the black American experience. First-generation immigrant Chimamanda Adichie, 34, who came from Nigeria as a child, described how books helped her understand the United States; journalist/biographer Wil Haygood, 55, says he devoured Time-Life mail-order books as a kid to transport himself from a dysfunctional household in Columbus, Ohio. Writer Nathan McCall discovered books, writing and himself while serving time in prison as a young man; while historian David Levering Lewis -- whose parents rubbed shoulders with black intellectual titans like W.E.B. DuBois -- got hooked on reading as a boy when he picked up a book on French history.

While each story is different, all the writers spoke of reading as a passport to the big world, opening up wider possibilities. At the same time, most said, writing became an act of self-determination, discovery and empowerment, a mind-set that's rapidly disappearing in a generation raised on YouTube and PlayStations, and relative isolation.

Writer Edward P. Jones says it succinctly: "Reading and writing are the foundation for becoming a better person and a better life," he tells students. "Reading lets you know you're not alone in the world."

Joseph Williams, a former editor at the Star Tribune, is now an editor at Politico.

  • THE WORD: BLACK WRITERS TALK ABOUT THE TRANSFORMATIVE POWER OF READING AND WRITING

    By: Marita Golden.

    Publisher: Broadway Books, 224 pages, $14.99.

    Review: Golden's thoughtful essays -- and lists of suggested reading -- bring to mind a genteel discussion in a lovely ivy-entwined college library. But her passion and frustration at the decline in black literacy is the core of this interesting book.

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