How a ‘dyslexic black boy’ fell in love with words

"The Anti-Talking Head" is an interview series where producers at The Stream share enlightening conversations they have with non-traditional guests leading up to the show, allowing them to expand on ideas that don’t get shared on the program.

We have the pleasure of speaking with fascinating people from around the world, who are intimately connected to the issues we tackle. To put it frankly: they tell it like it is, without sugarcoating their perspectives.

In this first installment, we speak with David Kirkland, author of A Search Past Silence: The Literacy of Young Black Men. You can follow him on Twitter @davidekirkland and watch him on The Stream Tuesday, February 24th at 12:30pm EST.

It’s not everyday a stranger recites poetry from memory to me on the phone.

Granted, it was in the context of a broader pre-interview I was conducting for an upcoming show with a prospective guest on illiteracy in U.S schools. But still, David Kirkland, an associate professor of English at New York University, effortlessly delivered the verses with which he fell in love as a 12-year-old boy from Detroit. These words, a constant reminder of how he resisted a predetermined fate by those who he says were quick to mislabel black boys as dyslexic.

We spoke about illiteracy through the lens of the experiences of Freeway Rick Ross, the man considered responsible for ushering crack cocaine into Los Angeles and ultimately across the U.S. Ross is the subject of the upcoming Al Jazeera America documentary “Freeway: Crack in the System.” He attributes much of his demise to his failed dreams of gaining higher education. Ross didn’t learn to read until the age of 28.

Rick Ross is not alone. Millions of U.S. adults are illiterate, and David notes that the English curriculum in a majority of U.S. schools could be the problem.

I spoke to him about innovative ways to re-approach teaching literacy in schools.

Why do we have illiterate kids in U.S. schools?

That depends on how we think about literacy. Why don’t we have academic literate individuals and why don’t we have it across a variety of ranges with respect to socioeconomic class, preparing some students to be academically literate, and other students not to be? The weight of it is a big, profound question.

The answer is simple: schools by design serve certain groups well, and others groups are neglected. And the other is, it’s not schools’ job to promote literacy. They enforce it as it gets promoted in society; the literacy we see associated with our schools have an elite status. What does this mean? It means schools dismiss certain literacies, like the writing on napkins, the writing on the walls and bodies which could come as a prerequisite and as an instructional bridge. Schools don’t include literature from non-elite cultural backgrounds. It’s not the school’s job or mission to work with these students and be culturally responsive.

We teach Shakespeare in the secondary grades, it’s required in most schools, but we never ask the question: Why? Does this really engage young people? Instead, why not start where the students are, they are in social media. Why not start with reading and writing raps? Start with the place where students are most in need: tackling trust issues, social issues, so they are motivated to figure out how to code and decipher words and images and messages. If we start in that place, not only will they gain skills to read hip hop, but they’ll gain other skills across the education community.

Rick Ross says he didn’t learn to read or write until the age of 28, because it wasn’t ‘cool’ to read or write in his community. How much does inner-city culture fuel illiteracy?

In this community, and I’ve written about this, if you read certain books, they will make fun of you. They will say you are ‘acting white,’ make egregious associations, reading in particular ways and particular types of texts with particularly African-American men, you have those associations. However, if you go to any of them and you cannot display that you can read, they will make fun of you. Call you prerogatives like ‘you're dumb.’

So it’s not that reading is not enforced or encouraged, it’s the notion of selling out that is discouraged. They are not making fun of people who do not read, they make fun of accommodating the status-quo without considering what the status-quo might read. The same brothers who might belittle Rick Ross, would have been the same brothers uplifting brothers in the Nation of Islam who were reading and writing at the time, without the facade of what selling out means to them.

What does that mean? Well, it means you either have embraced the type of dominant white, patriarchal structure, or you are effeminate. It’s not necessarily resistance of reading but rather what it might mean to sell out to whatever identity these young men are made to embrace.

“...schools dismiss certain literacies, like the writing on napkins, the writing on the walls and bodies, which could come as a prerequisite and as an instructional bridge.”

David Kirkland

Let’s switch gears to the school system. How do children who cannot read or write manage to pass their grades, with some even walking across a graduation stage?

Most young people know how to read and write in some way, but just not the dominant school-based literacy. Students don’t have access to a particular literacy, but that doesn’t mean they lack it. In fact, if we leave the classroom we find they are very literate in ways we don’t always appreciate. When we talk about the literacy gap, we don’t appreciate these literacies and see them with a deficit, lacking. But once we realize this, we can use what they have in order to stimulate them.

So, how do students get through the system without an academic form of literacy? The system is in some ways made, perpetuated, constructed as an uneven playing field. It stratifies, in a way, as was said during Ferguson, there are some schools where students are prepared to be doctors and lawyers, and others are prepared to be criminals. Some students have access to AP courses, access to public spaces, social spaces, allowing them to engage richly in this culture of becoming doctors, lawyers, becoming particular types of citizens.

Other people experience school differently. They are suspended more often, remediated more often, they get to detention and are sent to cells where there are no windows in the room. We see here the production by schools, people who become prisoners. Michelle Alexander [author of The New Jim Crow] writes this, it’s the school-to-prison pipeline as well, marginality and inequality in society. The larger questions are, how we do we create a school system that doesn't work to continue and maintain the status-quo, that might interrupt oppression?

And how do we create that?

Let me give you five thoughts. One, our understanding of literacy must move beyond this question of ‘what’. What is literacy? We conclude it’s reading print and writing print, it involves that, but it involves so much more. Whose literacy and why. The whys and hows, why do young black men read and write and don’t read and write, maybe they won’t if they think their task of reading and writing will ostracize them from being men; but they will read rap lyrics, that will inoculate them into other conversations.  

Another thought, how do we think about school? We need to rethink the basics. Not just things like reading, writing and arithmetic, but pleasure, play, creativity, curiosity. So many of us who love to read, when we came to reading, we learned to play with words, we had opportunities to be curious, to create. In some classrooms today there are teachers who will tell you that you can’t play with words, you can’t make up words, you can’t be creative like the rappers and poets. Many of these young people look at school like it’s boring.

We need to rethink the classroom. The classroom should be structured around youth’s lives, affirming and sustaining their lives, begin with them. Beginning with them has the potential to take them different places, places they are both connected to and that are relevant to them, and connecting relevance. What that means is taking them to places they don’t know are relevant to them, but making the connection between the gap. Rethink the classroom in a culturally relevant way. Instead of Shakespeare, teach Tupac.

Let’s start an autobiography lesson by starting with Facebook, looking at how real lives are changing every day. Instead of an argument, start with the Eminem battle scene in 8 Mile. Challenge our assumptions; instead of talking about failing students, let’s talk about how we are failing students.

What does that mean, if we talk about failing students? Then, the mechanism becomes how we change school, expectations; the responsibility is not only on the student. Ask how we are failing and the responsibility becomes ours. We have to understand there is an imperative to change. Do what we can to change school, not just students, but to change school.

“Let’s start an autobiography lesson by starting with Facebook, looking at how real lives are changing every day. Instead of an argument, start with the Eminem battle scene in 8 Mile.”

David Kirkland

I’ve got to ask, since you are speaking so passionately: How and when did you fall in love with words?

When I was a kid, they called me dyslexic. A lot of black boys share the story of being labeled that way. I was intimidated by words. Dyslexia is a condition that deals with language and words, and yet I remember reading an African American literature book around the age of 12, and I tore a poem out of the book. I know you're not supposed to do that, but I did, and it was Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy”. I have it tattooed to my left arm right now as I speak to you. It stuck with me.


“I know why the caged bird sings”. The words resonated with me like they resonated with Maya Angelou. It spoke to my herd, my sensitivities and intimacies and real language. It started with a poem, then translated itself into a rap. I remember Grandmaster Flash, “Rapper's Delight,” the words resonated with me. “Unbroken glass.” It felt like the Detroit I came from. I fell in love with language early on, despite being labeled as someone with a language deficiency.

Anything else you’d like to add?

The only other thing I would add is―and I think this piece is important―I don’t want it to seem like I’m dismissing the crises that young men of color, particularly black males, face in school. Some districts in the U.S only graduate 20% of young black men. Detroit, my home city, is one. New York City doesn’t do well. Nationally, we know the graduation rate for black males is 60%, this is an extreme issue. I want to make the point that I concur we have an issue. But the issue as we label it, as we assign responsibility or as we castigate certain groups and populations, typically gets misunderstood and misrepresented. Usually, black men are the issue. Dubois said, “How does it feel to be a problem?”

The self-fulfilling prophecy of being assigned a problem label tends to work itself out. What’s important is that I’m asking a different question. Not that the young men are problems; they have grown up in, been born to, shaped by a society and a world that situates them in particular ways. Shapes them and shapes their destiny in a particular light. That’s the thing and question they take up.

...the issue, as we label it, as we assign responsibility or as we castigate certain groups and populations, typically gets misunderstood and misrepresented. Usually, black men are the issue. Dubois said, “How does it feel to be a problem?

David Kirkland

Move away from ‘black men are problems, what's the trouble with black males?’ to, ‘what are our problems with raising and dealing with young black men?’ Certainly if the stats hold true, and all students are created equally, we have some burden and responsibility to bear.

What do you think is the answer to addressing illiteracy in U.S schools? Share your thoughts with us using #AJAMStream.


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