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What's Wrong with Reading?
Anthony Turner
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Recently I was “caught” reading at McDonald’s by a group of kids at my school. I say “caught” because many of my peers consider reading to be a lame activity. They think it’s only something that geeks do.

But there I was, reading Med Head by James Patterson, a mystery/suspense author, when they strolled by. One girl named Tiffany walked up and said “Is that a…” she rubbed her eyes and acted like she couldn’t believe what I was doing. “...book?” she finished in a sarcastic, incredulous way.

I shrugged and said, “Reading is really good for you. Maybe you should try it.” She snorted and said “How about never.” Then she bent over and touched my cheek and turned away, leaving with the others.

It wasn’t the first time that something like that happened. When I occasionally go to the library, kids ask me why I’m reading. “It’s a library, that’s what you’re supposed to do!” They just shake their heads.

I don’t understand why they think reading is dumb. To me, being a reader means being open-minded, intellectual, and willing to learn new things. Reading has helped empower me and teach me important things that I might not have known about otherwise, like African history or world leaders. Also it’s just fun to get into the story, especially if the writing is witty, and learn new vocabulary that I can use later in a conversation.

But black youth culture prizes guys who play ball, bag girls, dance, and rap. Simply reading a book is considered passive or introverted. Or it’s considered a “white thing”—something black kids, especially black boys, shouldn’t be caught doing if they want to be popular. Unfortunately, I think some kids hold themselves back academically for those reasons. I know I feel slightly wary around books after hearing my peers say that people who read have no lives.

Dumbing Myself Down

When I participate in class and answer all the questions, I get laughed at. The same thing happens when I get caught reading for fun. So sometimes I try to cover up my “smarts” by making jokes or looking disinterested in class. After all, I don’t want to be considered a geek or nerd for simply reading a book. I want to be known for being outgoing just like most of the “cool kids” are.

My school is in BedStuy, Brooklyn. BedStuy is a tough place. I usually see garbage on the floor, graffiti on walls, overturned garbage cans, and kids looking to make fast money. It’s simply not the type of neighborhood where you smile and say, “Wow, I think I’ll do great here.” Many kids don’t see themselves striving higher than a high school education because of the heavy influence of the streets, where drug dealing and other illegal activities are common. The kids and even the adults don’t care that much about education—which means they don’t care about reading.

It was different for me. Reading was something I always seemed to be around. My mom, grandparents, and other adults who I visited often had books lying around. I enjoyed getting into a book and trying to imagine how the characters felt. I remember liking the book Tyrell by Coe Booth because the main character was a young black kid hoping to find his way through the streets, and in the meantime trying to do something productive. I could identify with him. Flight, by Sherman Alexie, is another favorite.

My mom, along with other adults in my life, always stressed that education was “the key to all things.” She was a college dropout, and I guess she wanted a better life for me. She told me that education can get you places, so I took education, and reading, as a way to improve myself.

History We Should Remember

Being able to enjoy the simple pleasures of reading also allowed me to dig into black history and understand my ancestors. For example, I learned that when slavery was legal in the U.S., many black people weren’t even allowed to read or write. Black people were kept ignorant on purpose.

Slave holders opposed slave literacy because they were concerned that literate slaves would convince others to read and write, and as they gained power through knowledge, they would revolt. If slaves got caught reading or writing, they could be viciously flogged or even killed.

Frederick Douglass, one of my most inspiring African-American heroes, was an abolitionist who gained a vast amount of knowledge by reading books even though it was against the law. Bribing white kids in his neighborhood with food, Douglass was gradually able to learn to read and empower himself.

Douglass was able to use his knowledge to advocate for other African-Americans who felt lost and powerless in the world of slavery. He even became President Abraham Lincoln’s trusted adviser on difficult political issues, such as the abolition of slavery. Reading was key to Douglass’ ability to improve society.

Another important time for African-Americans was the Civil Rights Movement, when blacks tried to gain racial equality. Although slavery had been outlawed, African-Americans suffered terrible forms of discrimination and often faced violence if they tried to challenge the system.

One of the biggest inequalities of the time was education. African-Americans were forced to attend schools that had worn out textbooks, dirty rooms, and very few supplies. These obstacles set African-Americans back. Without good teachers, better textbooks, and enough supplies, the kids couldn’t reach their full potential, so many stayed stuck in low-wage jobs that gave them little influence in society.

Although many black people in the 1800s would have died to be able to read a book, and many more African-Americans struggled in the 1900s to gain equal access to education, a lot of black teens now look down on reading and writing. The freedom that our ancestors rigorously fought for is sadly being taken for granted and even laughed at.

Teased for Reading, Again

I’ve tried to convince my friends that reading isn’t the geeky activity they think it is, but I haven’t made much progress. They don’t seem to get that reading is something that actually exercises and stimulates your brain. And I still get teased for reading.

I walked into a bookstore one day after school to unwind before I headed home. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a kid from my school, Devin, who happened to be in my Advanced Placement English class. I saw him with a broom and dust pan, so I figured he worked there.

To my surprise he made a beeline right to me and demanded, “Why are you reading a book?” I blinked at him, confusion written all over my face. I hardly spoke to Devin at school so it was a surprise that he was talking to me.

“I enjoy reading and it’s a good way to pass the time,” I said. “And what do you mean why? You make it seem like it’s a bad thing.”

Devin just shook his head and said, “I just don’t see how anyone would read. It’s a waste of time. You should be chilling with your boys, not cooped up in a bookstore.” Before I could say another word he walked away, leaving me confused and wondering, yet again: Is it bad to read?

I had to remind myself that—no, it isn’t. Reading helps you build up your vocabulary and learn about things outside the classroom. Reading helps you prepare for college, in the sense that you’re already used to picking up a book and doing research on your own. This is especially important for African-Americans.

African-American and Hispanic males have the lowest high school graduation rates in the U.S. We need to step up our performance in order to compete. With the economy the way it is, the chances for black youth to succeed can look pretty slim, and if we don’t like to read, those chances get even slimmer. So, the next time you’re killing time by updating your status on Facebook or watching TV, think about reading a book instead. It helps more than you know.

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