We need literacy warriors

Julianne Malveaux 01Dictionary defines warriors as “a person who fights in battle and is known for having courage and skill.” In “Roots,” reimagined Kizzy Kinte tells her dad, “Reading is my way of being a warrior, my way of feeling free inside.”

Teaching enslaved people to read and write was illegal in most Southern states, so reading was an act of resistance and rebellion that could get you sold – or worse. Reading material described as “subversive,” such as “David Walker’s Appeal,” could get you killed.

Wishful thinking
While enslaved people deeply desired knowledge, and risked their lives to learn to read, an ugly saying emerged about African-Americans and literacy. “If you want to hide something from a Black people, put it in a book.” I think the saying has less to do with Black folk and reading, and more to do with White people’s wishful thinking. Still, the achievement gap suggests that we need more African-American people to become literacy warriors.

The education system is replete with racial disparity and unfairness. African-Americans, 18 percent of the pre-kindergarten population, garner 48 percent of the suspensions, and are three times as likely as White students to get expelled. Black girls are the most likely to experience expulsions. African-American students are also three times as likely to be held back as other students.

African-American students have less access to Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate advanced courses. Too often their schools simply don’t offer the courses that may make a difference in college admissions. While one in five White students takes calculus in high school, just one in fifteen African-American students does. And African-American students are three times as likely to be taught by first-year teachers as Whites are.

Persistent gap
There are multiple organizations that advocate for more educational equity and for closing the achievement gap. Billions of dollars have gone into addressing the challenges that come with closing the achievement gap, but educational inequality is persistent.

We need educational warriors, people who are committed to fighting the educational inequality with courage and skill. It is going to take courage to call out the sacred cows that many dare not criticize.

Who are the teachers who are inefficient? What can we do about them? Do programs like Teach for America – that send inexperienced teachers to classrooms – serve or disserve young people? It’s going to take skill, too, to call people out in a way that motivates them toward reform, not resistance.

A statistic that bothers me is the fact that young Black people start out behind when they get to kindergarten. Ninety-one percent of White children who are not enrolled in preschool are read to at least three times a week by family members, compared to 78 percent of African-American students. There is also a racial gap in the availability of books in homes, and African-American youngsters may have less access to libraries.

Warriors needed
Where are the literacy warriors who would read to the children who are experiencing gaps? Where are the ones who will ensure that libraries in some communities are adequately stocked? Are there warriors who will give children books to take home, warriors who will fight to expand the offerings of our nation’s public schools?

Schools are letting out for the summer, which means that millions of young people not engaged in summer educational activities will lose learning by the time they return to school in the fall. Are there literacy warriors who will stand in the gap and ensure that every child has some meaningful educational program during the summer? Or will we stand by and watch the achievement gap stay the same or even grow wider?

Where are they?
Literacy warriors should not only be teachers in classrooms and parents at home. They should be preachers, politicians, and all others concerned with the achievement gap.

We need warriors as fierce as Kunta and Kizzy Kinte, as committed as Mary McLeod Bethune, as passionate as the teachers – Black and White –  who were paid little or nothing to go South to teach the newly emancipated. Where are the literacy warriors?

Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist. Her latest book “Are We Better Off? Race, Obama and Public Policy.” Is available via juliannemalveaux.com or Amazon.com



  1. My nephew is African-American. He is one of the statistics, being held back multiple times, and not reading at his grade level. The problem is not availability of books at home – his grandmother and I have bought him books multiple times a year since he was born and made sure that he has a current library card. The problem is his single mother not reading to him, not asking him to read out loud, not showing any interest in his schooling other than when he gets there and when he gets home. He is in a different city than me otherwise I’d help! The teachers do the best they can but when a child doesn’t do his homework and required reading because no one involves themselves at home, there is not much more that teachers can do! The focus should be on asking parents to become more involved in the future of their children and to look at school as something more than free day care…ask the parents to be Warriors for their children!


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