This is a teen-written article from our friends at Youth Communication, a nonprofit organization that helps marginalized youth develop their full potential through reading and writing.
By Anthony Turner
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 something that only 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 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 and world leaders. Also it’s just fun to get into the story, especially if the writing is witty.
Dumbing Myself Down
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 in school after hearing my peers say that people who read have no lives.
When I participate in class and answer all the questions, I get laughed at. So sometimes I try to cover up my “smarts” by making jokes or looking uninterested in class. After all, I don’t want to be considered a geek.
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 I visited often had books lying around. My mom, along with other adults in my life, always told me that education can get you places, so I took education, and reading, as a way to improve myself.
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.
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.