Still looking for a few good men

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free”
—Fredrick Douglass

By John W. Fountain
John Fountain reading to children at Matteson
Elementary School in Matteson, Illinois.
A brother I saw at the coffee shop this morning mentioned that he saw my picture in the newspaper and that the story made mention of a mentoring program I was involved with. I explained that it’s a reading program at Matteson Elementary School and that we read to children on Thursday mornings—just 45 minutes.
He shrugged, somewhat unimpressed—at least not convinced it was a big enough deal. “We gotta do more than that…” he said.
I explained to him that once upon a time, it was illegal and punishable by imprisonment and whipping, to teach a black slave to read. I explained that there is a direct correlation between adults who can’t read and those who end up in prison.
I explained that there is a schools-to-prison pipeline that can predict with some degree of certainty that by the time little black boys are in 4th grade how many prisons will need to be built to house them. I explained that we read to 1st through 3rd grade students and that we have an opportunity to help save them. That if they are behind in reading proficiency by 4th grade, the likelihood of them ever catching up is almost nil.

"And it remains the case that the truly enslaved still cannot read."

I could have told him that, according to the Department of Justice, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.”
Fredrick Douglass, abolitionist, freedom fighter 
I could have told him that studies show that 85 percent of all juveniles who enter the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate; that over 70 percent of inmates in America's prisons can’t read above the 4th grade level; and that 32 million adults in the U.S. can't read. I could have told him that reading to “our” children is more than about reading alone but about our presence as men in the life of a child who might not have a father.
What I did tell him is that there was a reason it was illegal to teach a slave to read. It had to do with something the slave masters always understood. Simply: Once a slave learns to read, he is no longer a slave. He is free.
And it remains the case that the truly enslaved still cannot read.
The brother chatted a bit, congratulated me on the effort, but did not offer to come and read, spending instead more of his time wasting my time. He parted with his coffee as I thought about ways of enlisting brothers for this worthy cause.

Statute Laws of Georgia for 1845 concerning educating Negroes, under Section II, Minor Offences: “Punishment for teaching slaves or free persons of color to read. If any slave, negro, or free person of color, or any white person, shall teach any other slave, negro or free person of color, to read or write either written or printed characters, the said free person of color or slave shall be punished by fine and whipping, or fine or whipping, at the direction of the court.”