Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Black Kids Read, Too


The worst kind of prejudice is the kind that slips under the radar. It's too subtle to cause a stir (and if you point it out, you'll usually get a sideways look: you're the one making too much of nothing), but its corrosive message nevertheless seeps in—subliminally, insidiously—beating down the spirit of the group it belittles or excludes. I am blessed to have been raised by two parents who were sensitive to prejudicial undercurrents; they fought against them in their own distinct ways through the tumultuous 1960s, and into the 70s and 80s as I was growing up. And it seems, thinking about it now, that they never missed a good learning moment with me: we often discussed issues of bias, prejudice, stereotype, and their harmful effects. This week, images in some of my kindergartener's reading books gave me pause. And in wrestling with how to handle these, I remembered something I hadn't thought of in many years: the library at the Brentwood Science Magnet School in Los Angeles, California. I attended this public school in the fifth and sixth grades, having moved to L.A. from Chicago at the beginning of the summer in 1979. The library itself seemed fairly cozy to me, and I don't recall thinking much of it one way or the other, until my mom called some points to my attention. She had decided to volunteer in the library from time to time, and one of the things she did was to give some supplemental tutoring to kids who were struggling with their reading skills. To a one, these kids were all African American. The school was a magnet school, as its name proclaimed: a school in a privileged district that bused elementary-aged children in from hard-knocks neighborhoods. Was it a surprise that the kids in the school's own zip code were predominately white, the bused kids black? Not really. Anyway, this was the reality. I suppose it might just be considered fortunate that a program even existed to help the children who were struggling for literacy. Perhaps that should have been satisfying enough, and the argument that follows would, by this contented logic, be considered nitpicking. Or else would simply be met with a shrug of the shoulders—as in fact was the case when my mom decided to talk to the librarian (or tutoring program director) about it. "It" being the fact that while all the children pulled out of regular class for remedial tutoring were black, the visual theme of the room in which they were to learn suggested, covertly, that letters and reading were for whites. All around the room, on the walls above the shelves or desks, were displayed large cards with the letters of the alphabet on them. You probably know the kinds of cards I mean. There are many vintage images of these cards, or ones not unlike them. There were children depicted on the cards as well—and the children, A to Z without fail, all were white. So what? you say. Well, put yourself in the place of one little girl, sweet as could be, whom my mother was tutoring on a regular basis. Into the library she comes, knowing already that she's singled out for her lack of fluency with words on the page (and maybe feeling bad about it); knowing already that the white kids are reading and she is not, that the only kids in the "slow" program are black like she is. And put yourself in the place of my mother, the tutor, one of several adults linked to the library (all of them white, too). My mother's job was to help this girl, and as a resource what could she show her? Pictures of letters, books, faces . . . a world of white faces that looked nothing like the girl's own face, all of them able to read. Did the girl notice, staring up at the alphabet row? Maybe not. But my mom did, and I know it bothered her deeply, because she told me about it. She got me thinking about visual messages that can sometimes speak louder than words. Overt, verbal or printed messages of prejudice we know how to deal with, if only because they are impossible and yet so easy to ignore; they are so commonplace, and any person belonging to a minority learns resistance to them to some degree. The visual prejudice? Not so easy to notice, and therefore not so easy to defend against. But still, all too easy to incorporate into a world view without your even knowing it. And what was the response when my mom raised the issue? Why the shrug? "This was all I could get from the Board of Education." My mom's answer to this, had it been her library to arrange as she wished, would have been to find inclusive images on her own, to draw them herself if need be. Today, things are a bit different. Some progress has been made, though I can't say whether that progress has come to the Board of Ed. in L.A. I am happy to report that it's easier to find racial diversity in literature and in various teaching tools. The image above, of the letter J, for instance, is one I found with the most casual Internet search. I love it. It belongs to a series of alphabet cards created by Ida Pearle (www.idapearle.com), an artist (white, if it matters), born, educated, and still living in New York. I encourage you to check out her work, even if you have no classroom or nursery to decorate. Her art is lovely, simple, and playful . . . and includes children of many races. I am content to have discovered her in the course of working on this post. But most of all, I am beyond content—I am blessed—to have been given an eye for these kinds of details in the first place, to have been taught to speak up about things that don't speak for themselves; things that, however small they seem, are still just not right. This memory of my elementary school's library and my mother's observations and actions concerning it, is but a single example of the kind of person my mother has always been. There are many other examples, too numerous to count. And I'm thankful for the strength I derive from each one of them.

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