Getting Black Boys to Read Books

Hip-Hop Enters the Fray (and that might not be a good thing)

Black Commentator, Commentary, Anthony Asadullah Samad Posted: Jul 29, 2007

Editor's note: Long-time observers of African American reading habits are alarmed. On public transportation at least, African American romance novels and fiction seem have found a comfortable -- and profitable -- niche among adults. Rarely seen: history, science, cultural criticism. Even rarer, any book in the hands of a young African American male.

In a materialistic world, what is the most valuable thing you can give your young boys? Nope, it’s not money -- they’ll spend it on rims and shoes. Nope, it’s not “bling” -- they’ll only create a false illusion of wealth that, in the end, they’ll pawn. Nope, not video games -- it only makes them fat and lazy (but they’ll have strong thumbs). How about a book? Yes, a book.

It’s time to recognize our children are bring significantly disadvantaged in their desire to get immediate information. Reading magazines and Wikipedia is not the same as reading books. We are in a new literary renaissance period. When a new Harry Potter book can sell eight million books in 24 hours (or 15,000 books a minute), you have to ask yourself, what’s going on?

They used to say that if you want to hide something from black people, put it in a book. I can tell you, having moderated panels on both coasts (the Harlem Book Fair and the first Leimert Park Book Festival) in the past month, that, for the most part, a lot of black people are reading. It’s what they’re reading (fiction, romance, erotica) that might be of concern, but at least some are reading. The African-American market is the “growth market” for the book industry. There is an exception. Young black boys.

Several national surveys have stated that black boys (ages 13-24) are not reading books. An amazing 54% of young boys under 15 years of age (more than half of school aged boys) have never read a book. Most of them drop out of school because they’re made to read books. Literary is a crisis in the black community, even though some suggest we’re in the midst of a new “black literary renaissance.” 70% of black boys/men (high school and college) 21 and under, claim to have read at least one book in their lives, but most can’t recall the title. Most of them have read newspapers (mostly sport pages, and magazines), but don’t know the pleasure of reading a book. Their leisure (and study) time is spent watching “channel zero” (television) playing video games or on-line.

How do we rationalize, as a race and a culture, not exposing our children to literature? I believe that for every video game a child has, they should have two books.

Many authors, including myself, are now targeting their books at this largely disengaged (and illiterate) segment of the black population. Even hip-hop is entering the fray, and I don’t know if that is positive or negative (given the message). The positive thing is that we all, including hip-hop, recognize that there is a problem. The negative thing is that it’s couched in same negative imagery and language we’re battling against.

I was recently flipping past BET, only to see an animated video entitled, Read A Book. I said, Oh! And watched in horror, as “the beats” set to lyrics, “Read A Book, Ni**a, Read A Mutha F**kin’ Book!!” Then they had animated big-butt women shaking their rumps with the word, book, written on their behinds. Before it was over, the video also engaged “Ni**as” to brush their teeth, use deodorant and buy land (instead of rims). Okay… we said we wanted the hip hop generation to get involved in social advocacy. I don’t quite think this is what we had in mind, but they’re engaged now on the issue of literary. And personal hygiene and wealth building.

Clearly the video was targeting young black boys using every “hook” that attracts the attention of young boys from street language to “booties” to “beats.” I guess we should be appreciative of hip-hops contribution to this issue…[silence].

The point is now everybody is recognizing that there is a problem trying to get young boys to read. This is a social issue that we all can influence. Since I was in my mid-20s, I made a habit of buying a book a week, and trying to read a book a week (it’s more like a book a month now). The point is, however, reading became a habit for me. As much a habit as working, exercising, advocating, “getting busy” and sleeping, reading, and subsequently studying, has always been somewhere in the mix. It became part of my socialization.

We have to make reading part of young black male’s socialization. We have to ask them, not “Wassup?” but “What you read lately? Make ‘em respond too. Stop showering our young boys with toys, and clothes and electronic gadgets. Shower them with books. Hold them hostage on the other stuff until they read a book. Want some $150 sneakers? Read $150 worth of books. Want a $40 video game? Yeah, after you buy $40 worth of books. Want $2000 rims? Hell, you can buy a library for $2,000 -— that’s about a book a week.

Young people’s favorite saying is, “Don’t get it twisted.” They definitely got it twisted. What they think is important is not really important. What they think has value, doesn't have the value to take them where they now to go. Now, we have to twist them back. We have to show them what real value is. It needs to start with reading a book. It’s the first step to being an enlightened study. And if it’s a woman that they want? There is nothing more exciting to a young sista than seeing a young brotha with a book in his hand. Not bling on his wrist, not rims on his car. A book.

Read a book, Young black Man, Read a book.

Note: “The Read A Book” video that was available on YouTube and some other Websites was removed after BET claimed copyright infringement. Columnist Dr. Anthony Asadullah Samad is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum and author of the upcoming book, Saving The Race: Empowerment Through Wisdom. His Website is

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User Comments

Cheri Paris Edwards on Aug 15, 2007 at 05:27:34 said:

For years I have worked with middle-school 'at-risk' youth and am the son of two boys. I can attest, there is almost NOTHING for them to read. My son read a lot of Stephen King and Koontz and the older one did read "Makes me want to Holler" and Monster Kody's story. I gave these books to a few boys when it first came out. It was a little over their heads, but it was something and it was real.

In my opinion the video satirizes the images and words too many black boys (and girls) have come to embrace. I know from experience many black boys can NOT read and the lack of skills begins in grade school. They come to middle-school reading at a 3rd grade level. This means elementary school is where the first round of books geared toward young blacks should appear. What's really sad is the same boys who never learned to read are the ones I now see on the evening news because they are going to jail as adults.

As I writer, I am frustrated that young people in general are drawn to these images. Girls who are reading in the middle-school I tutored in are most often ingesting erotica and urban lit and their behavior often reflected the sentiments in the stories.

When I tell folks I work in the school, people most often say, "I can't deal with those kids and why do they act like they do?" I say, we need to turn the question on ourselves. Why did we allow these images to permeate the community? Additionally, why have we allowed those who've made money from these type offerings to become icons in the community? Is it all about the dollar bill?


Jovan Miles on Aug 03, 2007 at 14:49:00 said:

I am a middle grades teacher in Atlanta GA and I too see how too few young black males actually read. However, the video and song in question are obviously satire. I have interviewed the artist for my website at the following url.

Take a look at it to learn more about him.

J.S. Peyton on Aug 03, 2007 at 08:56:16 said:

I've seen the video and listened to the song that you reference above. Though I doubt that this detracts from your argument very much, the video and the song was actually a criticism of the vapid, materialistic videos and songs which make up so much of rap today. By coupling the positive message with the images seen in the video and with the repetitive, simple lyrics often heard in urban club songs, the rapper was attempting to show, through satire, how absurd a lot of rap has become. In short, it was a joke, which unfortunately a lot of young boys (or people who may not be very familiar with that kind of music) may miss.

I also think the fact that, as Krea hinted at above, there simply aren't that many books on the market directed towards young black boys should be addressed. Publishers don't like to publish books for young blacks because young blacks don't read; young blacks don't read because publishers don't like to publish books for young's a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is not to say that all the fault lies with publishers, but I think that we all like to read literature that we feel we can relate to on some level, including young black boys; that is why the "urban lit" genre has become so popular - because it's something that speaks to their experience. I have my own problems with urban lit but sometimes just starting them off reading something - anything - can open the window to the whole wide world of literature.

And, to close, yes reading is and should be edifying, but in order to create life-long readers it also has to be something enjoyable, not a duty. Until there are novels out there which accomplish both feats - edification and entertainment - creating life-long readers out of young blacks boys, shall remain almost impossible.

Krea on Jul 30, 2007 at 15:41:01 said:

thank you for this perspective. I am raising two black sons to be readers, and quiet honestly there isn't alot of material geared towards them-much of what they are reading is classic liturature-which is part of the problem. They KNOW its out dated. My son loves Richard Wright and becuase he is into science fiction, has just been introduced to Octavia Butler, but at 10 years old,he is well aware that his peers are not reading these books.
What is more depressing is, I go into schools and teach youth about the history of the juvenile justice system (with hopes that they will get it); at the beginning of the class we always have youth read "A letter to Young People" by Tookie Williams. It amazes me how many 11th and 12th graders CAN'T read!
There have been many reports that state that Correctional Associations and state governments all over the US use 3rd grade reading scores to determine the number of prison beds they should anticipate filling in the next 10 years.
If kids can't read at 16 and 17 years old-what does that mean for the future of our communities?




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