By LENNOX FARRELL
With respect, please do not die until you have taught someone else to read. To magnify the request, there is no greater gift one human can give to another than teaching them to read.
If you have never seen the joy and excitement in the eyes of a child who is able to write their name for the first time, you have not yet seen joy encompassing and unbridled!
In this vein of individuals learning to read, two films – one a movie, the other a documentary – are noteworthy. I have forgotten the title of the latter but will call it “Leah”. A documentary about a 10-year-old boy, it was filmed during the then New Jewel Movement, Grenada revolution led by Maurice Bishop.
In the documentary, the youth taught an illiterate man of advanced age (in his 80s or 90s) to read. After a lifetime of being unable to read and write, the man had finally learned with the help of the youth. The initial title of the film was the name of the man’s wife, which was chosen because the first word he ever wrote was her name.
Again, the details, apart from the title, are generally correct. In fact, the film generated much support for Grenada during this time among teachers and teachers’ unions, probably more than from among any other set of individuals and organizations in Ontario and Canada.
The other film was the acclaimed 1989 American comedy-drama, Driving Miss Daisy. It is about an elderly Jewish matron portrayed by Jessica Tandy, who after an uneasy employer-employee relationship with her driver, Morgan Freeman, teaches him to read.
There are other similar films. In fact, were one attempting to record the experiences herein about Black people during and after enslavement, most films would have to do either with White efforts to deny education to slaves and former slaves, or about the efforts by Black parents and others to eliminate illiteracy and “push education”, as our grandparents phrased it.
In the U.S., this policy denying literacy to Black Americans also negatively affected wide swaths of Southern Whites. Many of the Southern Whites, recruited as soldiers in World War I, had to be upgraded to Level Five. Nonetheless, they had literacy rates four times that of Blacks.
In Trinidad, his simple act of guaranteeing to the people of Trinidad & Tobago the right to secondary education forever endeared Dr. Eric Williams to his nation’s citizens.
Have we lost ground since? Is there truth to the cynical statement, “If you want to hide something from Black people, put it in a book”?
Literacy is the ultimate gateway to, defender and guarantor of, freedom. Enslavement of Africans ensured that Black people would not become literate. Anti-slavery revolts and revolutions had as their litmus test the ensuring of Black-ensured literacy replacing White-imposed illiteracy!
A similar sentiment came to mind during the recent ceremony commemorating the appointment of Justice Dr. Irving W. André to the Superior Court of Justice in Brampton, Ontario. In Dr. Andre’s inaugural response, referring to the emphasis on literacy in his home as a child, he said: “A home without a library is a house without a soul.” Poignantly, he cited his parents’ efforts to giving books pride-of-place in their home, and minds.
Today, in the homes of Black people we might know, are there libraries consisting of books or of movies and music videos? PlayStations? Games? Are our youth becoming addicted, not to success, self-discipline and pro-social attitudes, but to anti-social ones with consequent emotional sensibilities of limited range?
By way of historic solutions, the role of women in teaching children is unequalled. Their role is further acknowledged by international organizations geared directly towards educating the world’s children. One of these, UNICEF, states: “The health and advancement of a child is primarily determined by the educational level of its mother”.
In 2013, what about us as men? As Black men? Would we be blessings to our women, children and communities if we took the primary responsibility of enrolling our children in libraries?
Sitting with one child, only one, committing to staying engaged until that child learns to read and write? If you’ve not yet done so, you would not have sensed the direct links between learning, empowering…and utter joy! And being able to smile in the feckless face of death!