Before my son was born, he was a high school dropout. Before my son was born, he was incarcerated. Before my son was born, he was a teen father. Before my son was born, he was bleeding to death in the street – the assailant was another child that looked like him, or a police officer who was afraid of him. I would be raising a Black boy in America. Statistically, my son was all these things before I’d ever seen his face.
He was, and is, a Black boy in America. The trajectory of his life would be an uphill battle. But I refused to let it be. I knew of a power. The power of reading. From an early age, my parents encouraged me to read. They encouraged me to consume books like food. I made a decision for my son before he’d ever breathed air into his lungs; I’d make him a reader.
The day Coby was born was the day this research began. He never saw one night without a book in front of him. Whether he was sleeping or crying or hooked up to IV fluids in a hospital bed, my son would be read to every single night of his life. When he started formal school, he was the strongest reader in his kindergarten class. My goal had been accomplished. His place as top reader amongst his peers continued throughout his elementary, and middle school education. But it wouldn’t be until my son was in ninth grade that I’d see the full manifestation of building a love of reading into a Black boy.
In nearly every regard, Red was considered a “throw away” kid by the public school system. He was an African American orphan. Homeless. Living on his own. Functionally illiterate. A multiple retainee. Violent. On paper, he had nothing going in his favor. He showed up to my class after missing several weeks of the beginning of the school year. He also came with a warning label of sorts. School leaders told me, “watch out for that kid”, “be careful around him”, “he won’t do any work”, and my favorite, “don’t even try with him.” I was too young and too idealistic to believe any of that. I knew the transformative power of reading. I had a hunch that if I could find the right text for Red, that I could change his life – through literacy.
In his first two weeks in my class, Red was not interested in anything I was doing. He slept. Then we began Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. I front-loaded the novel by talking to the students about racism, classicism, The Civil Rights Movement and many other obstacles the Younger family faced. I also shared the inspiration for Hansberry’s play, A Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes. I was enthusiastic about the unit. However, my students seemed nonplussed about it – all of it. As expected, Red was the most disengaged of them all. I continued to move ahead, my enthusiasm unwaning, because I knew there was something transformative about this work of literature. I just knew there was something in this work for Red.
The first day we read, I took volunteers to read parts. Not one hand went up. So I decided to read all the parts myself. Pulling from the characters in my own life, I became every character in the play. After two days of my one-woman show, my students began volunteering. By day four they were arguing over parts, and on day five I had to create a system for character sign up. When the bell rang, Red lingered.
“Aye Coach B. I want to be Walter Lee every day.”
“Yea. I read ahead and I want to be him. I understand him you know.”
“Tell me about that.”
“His struggle you know. To be better. To have more. To, like, do any thing to have some thing.” It took everything in me not fall down in a pool of tears. When Red said he understood Walter Lee Younger I was filled with overwhelming emotion. As I write this, I’m still moved to tears that he’d found a piece of literature that served as a mirror for his life. He saw himself in Walter Lee, and that made him want to read. His classmates agreed to let him be Walter Lee. They liked seeing him play the role; he was good too.
Coby began ninth grade like every other high school freshman. He wanted a girlfriend, popularity and cool clothes. I could do nothing about the former, but the latter – well at least I tried to solve that. Moving through each of his Pre-Advancement Placement, he was having a successful year. On a fateful Wednesday afternoon, Coby sent me a text of a caption in his World Geography book. His teacher assigned chapter 4 entitled “patterns of immigrations” for reading, and less than one page in, Coby found an egregious error in wording. The caption referred to enslaved Africans brought to the United States as workers. My son took a picture of the caption and attached the following wording: “we was real hard workers wasn’t we.”
Flabbergasted by the poor choice of wording, I took to social media to voice concern. I explained in a short post that this was what erasure looked like. The following day, people asked for more information about the book. I decided to make a short video detailing information about the publisher, editors and the nuanced language of the textbook. In less than thirty-six hours, the video had received over a million views. I was an overnight success. I was interviewed by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, The Houston Chronicle, CNN, National Public Radio, The BBC and I appeared on The Larry Wilmore Show.
The reality was that my son’s reading skills brought a textbook giant to its knees. It was his victory. It was his success. He’d tapped into the true power of reading – and for the first time since he was born, I wasn’t worried about his life. He would be alright.
Red’s Story Continued
I watched Red flourish in my class for the rest of the year. Although not in the district curriculum, I introduced him to several other pieces of literature that I thought he would connect to. Some of them were The Passing of Grandison by Charles Chessnutt, The Autobiography of An Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson and selected poems by Langston Hughes. He devoured the texts, saw himself in them and as a result, grew as a reader and a writer.
The following year, Red was removed from school. He threatened a teacher. I know he didn’t graduate from high school, and I’m unsure about where is today. However, what I am sure about is that Red was changed, even if just for a little while, by reading texts that he could connect to.
I’ll carry Red with me forever.
He is the ontogenesis and inspiration for this research.