The ability and willingness to read has always enabled upward social mobility. Reading is a means to power which is why Black Lives Matter (BLM) — and any racial justice movement — would only benefit from including a literacy and reading component in its platform and organizing.
People still read to learn and be entertained but there’s a decline in reading interest and habit in the United States.
Based on the Humanities Indicators’ database — a comprehensive statistical information about the humanities in the United States — as of 2017, Americans spent an average of close to 17 minutes per day reading for personal interest with a five-minute decrease since 2003. Roughly a quarter of U.S. adults (27%) report that they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, up from 19% in 2011, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey.
The same survey also identifies the non-reading populations, who stated not reading books in any format in the 12 months before the survey. Forty-four percent of adults with a high school diploma or less weren’t reading. Adults whose annual household income is $30,000 or less constituted more than a third of the non-readers. Racial disparities also permeated the data. Non-readers were mostly Hispanic (40%) and black (33%) versus white (22%). The majority of these self-reported nonreaders are regarded as aliterate, people who have the ability to read and write but choose not to.
The U.S. has a literacy rate of 99 percent. We don’t know who’s in this 1% who can’t read but, according to the National Adult Literacy Survey, 70% of all incarcerated adults cannot read at a 4th grade level. It’s likely that the people interacting with police and the criminal justice system, the people that BLM is fighting for, fall into this unfortunate 1%.
Historically, reading and freedom and change are interwoven and closely tied. Frederick Douglass, an illiterate enslaved American who became an accomplished orator and writer, regarded reading as the pathway from slavery to freedom.
Reading can indeed free the mind as well as liberate the body. Sir Francis Bacon, an English Renaissance statesman and philosopher, said that “Reading maketh a full man” or a woman. In his Of Studies, he described that studies, or reading, serve three functions or purposes including for gaining delight, for ornamenting one’s life, and for improving one’s ability.
Even though reading and education can and do coexist in some contexts and serve to reinforce each other, they are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive. Formal education can end but reading never does.
That BLM reading lists have been put out by independent bookstores should support the idea that organizing doesn’t happen unless people are learning.
Reading itself is a political act. This is probably why the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus continued to set the stage for its fall legislative agenda, calling a news conference and committee hearing to discuss education policy and call for racial equity in education; and also why Netflix’s new show, Bookmarks, the Reading Rainbow for a whole new generation, was created to celebrate children’s books written by black authors, hosted by Marley Dias, who has spoken alongside Oprah and former First Lady Michelle Obama. These people know that new ideas gleaned from new texts encountered by young minds are going to be the engine of revolution.
But more can be done, especially if we define life as a series of experiences. Reading overcomes the limitations of time and space with the existence of several lives and in several geographic locations experienced at the same time, albeit vicariously. Reading gives people the power they’re fighting for.
If reading didn’t have power, there wouldn’t have been so many attempts throughout history to control it. Many tyrants and dictators in history have, in order to sustain the darkness and their tight control, purposefully deprived the right of the people to learn how to read and be enlightened. The First Emperor of Qin in China burned books with the hope of unifying all thoughts and political opinions. Hitler and his Nazi followers burned books opposed to Nazism. NEED A LINK.
Even in the United States, horrible, oppressive book burning has plagued our history. Under McCarthyism, books deemed anti-American or written by “Communists, fellow travelers, et cetera” were set to the bonfire, including the poems of Langston Hughes, the American poet who says reading can “make our world anew.” The full lists of books burned and banned have been kept secret. President Trump has recommended a new patriotic education. There’s no book burning in his plan but I’m sure there’s a canon he has in mind.
As Oscar Wilde, an Irish poet and playwright, put it, “The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame.”
Of course, the mere ability to read won’t erase the country’s past or release people from custody or take a bullet out of the back of the Black man; George Floyd’s reading habits wouldn’t have lifted a police knee on his neck. We need much larger and aggressive strategies to shift the discourse of Black criminality.
And that’s just my point; reading and literacy are such basic foundations to freedom that all of the other tactics can’t be as effective as they want to be if the people involved aren’t critical readers. Reading is a prerequisite for gaining political power and charting one’s own fate and destiny, a genuine democratic process.
Hanfu Mi is a Professor of Literacy Education and Linguistics and a former Dean at the University of Illinois at Springfield, and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.