David J. Johns: The Importance of Literacy Among African American Youth

Welcome to First Book’s celebrity blog series. Each month we will be connecting with influential voices who share a belief in the power of literacy, and who have worked with First Book to curate a unique collection that inspires a love of reading and learning. All recommended books are available at deeply discounted prices on the First Book Marketplace to educators and programs serving children in need.

This month we hear from David J. Johns, Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, on the importance of literacy among African American youth.

A love of reading is crucial for increasing achievement among African American students and, consequently, for closing persistent achievement and opportunity gaps. Any student who picks up a book is exposed to adventures, life experiences, and characters that help cultivate voice and agency, and contribute to developing a strong sense of self. Since many students depend on books as their primary method of learning beyond the confines of the classroom, African American children are uniquely challenged when the majority of characters in the literature available to them do not affirm their experience, identity or culture.

The availability of texts reflective of the interests and experiences of African American students, schools and communities is critical – powerful books, such as Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave and Richard Wright’s Native SonThese books depict African American boys leveraging skills cultivated from their life experiences to negotiate racial, class, and historical tensions. The need to negotiate these tensions continues to this day and these lessons apply regardless of the child’s family wealth, home language, zip code, identity, expression, race or gender. Both Frederick Douglass, as he reflects upon his experiences in the autobiography, and Bigger Thomas, Wright’s protagonist, are examples of resilient and intelligent young boys who struggle to learn, grow, and pursue a better life.

Strong female protagonists, like Cassie Logan from Mildred D. Taylor’s The Road to Memphis and Pecola Breedlove from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye support young women in developing a strong sense of agency as well as the strength to persist in pursuing post-secondary opportunities. These books can also help young men understand how to relate to, and engage with, strong women.  The poetry collection In Daddy’s Arms I am Tall celebrates fatherhood and promotes the importance of family in a way that all children can relate to. The stories and images in this important text disrupt and supplant negative stereotypes about absent fathers, reminding us of the tremendous opportunities male mentors and engaged fathers provide.

Additionally, reading about characters who are disabled, children of veterans, English language learners, children who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning, can help all students mature, develop empathy, awareness, and appreciation for diversity. In Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin describes the experiences of his protagonist, John, in ways that enable readers from all backgrounds to grow in their understanding of the challenges faced by their peers—at home, in school or at church.  The book is a powerful lesson of the role that faith and family play in supporting young people through adversity and is a seminal text for all students searching to find their voice.

Literacy is essential. Individuals without the skills to read or fully comprehend written text or without access to written text at all (including books and other materials that are inclusive, diverse, and affirming) are constrained in their ability to engage in our global society.  For these reasons, The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans supports efforts to increase literacy and encourage diversity within the publishing industry.

David J. Johns is the Executive Director for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. The Initiative contributes to closing the achievement gap for African American students.  For additional information on ways to support African American educational excellence, please visit http://www.ed.gov/AfAmEducation and follow the initiative on Twitter at @AfAmEducation.

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