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.
BlackCommentator.com 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 AnthonySamad.com.
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