Invoking Courage to Make Literacy Accessible for Everyone

Invoking Courage to Make Literacy Accessible for Everyone


Habeebah R. Grimes

Contributed by Habeebah R. Grimes, Chief Executive Officer

This Black History Month, as we celebrate the historical and modern-day achievements of Black Americans, acknowledging all that had (and has) to be overcome to not only survive but rise above the conditions created by racial oppression, I am reminded of the critical role that literacy plays in the lives the people we applaud this month.

The ability to read is essential to human well-being, and in PEP’s Day Treatment Centers, we are charged with either explicitly teaching reading skills or helping kids learn to interpret written language to the height of their cognitive abilities. In PEP’s other programs, we implicitly work to help kids acquire and sustain capacity to learn these skills. When we say reading is fundamental, it’s not a cliché. We know firsthand that when kids’ reading abilities lag far behind their perceived or actual adaptive skills (e.g., self-care, communication, etc.), they experience much lower quality of life and social outcomes than we would hope.

The Power of Literacy

Those who enslaved African Americans understood that learning to read was a pathway to liberation and excellence, and since neither of these were meant for enslaved people, anti-literacy laws were enacted in the 1800s to prevent the enslaved, and in some cases, “any free person of color” from becoming literate. A quick study of history demonstrates that anti-literacy efforts predating emancipation have had a lasting, multifaceted, and transgenerational impact. The educational system continues to grapple with the legacy of this effort, and its post-slavery iterations, to condense power in the hands of a few by preventing the oppressed from learning to read and write.

Today we know that combatting our nation’s history of anti-literacy laws, policies and practices requires that we make books available to every child so they grow up in text-rich environments that set the foundation for learning to read. We know that when kids have access to books with narratives that they can relate to, telling the stories of people who share their racial, ethnic, and cultural identities, they are more likely to want to engage with these books. And thanks to PEP’s bibliotherapy program, we know that kids can begin to make sense of their lives and the adversity they’ve experienced when books have relatable plots and trusted adults are present to support their engagement.

Lifting Up Marginalized Authors

We also know that Black authors and authors of other marginalized identities, whose lived experiences powerfully align with those of the kids we serve, are best able to tell their stories but they are not given the same opportunities to do so as White, straight, cisgender authors. Horrifyingly, even as I type this message, schools and libraries around the country are banning books by such authors who have somehow managed to achieve the extraordinary act of publishing their works.

In Dr. Gholdy Muhammad’s book, Cultivating Genius, she highlights the power of taking a culturally and historically responsive approach to literacy. She shares the story of the Black literary societies of the 1800s as a foundation from which to build a new framework for thinking about literacy. She invokes the courageousness, audacity, and wisdom that gave birth to these institutions and caused them to proliferate, even as the laws against teaching Black people to read, and associated violence, was well known. Finally, she urges us to adopt these qualities in service to making literacy accessible to every child so that they will know the freedom that reading provides.

As we continue to uplift the accomplishments of Black people this month, and beyond, I ask that we tap into the spirit of liberation and elevation that institutions such as Black literary societies offer us all. Though we face tremendous odds, we believe that every child can learn, achieve competence, and experience joy. In this most urgent time, may we help our kids experience this through reading and writing so that they rise up and shine like the exemplary people we are celebrating.