The Color of Literacy, A Multi-Genre Commentary
By Tinaya York
I enter into a room
A quick glance and what do I see
One or two other people that look like me
Conference after conference
How can this be?
I know Black folks care about literacy
I've read much of our research and our educational beliefs
Lee, Lynn, Morrell, Hilliard and Perry
Duncan-Andrade, Tatum, Woodson and Hale
This list goes on and on, but our stories always fail
To truly be the foundation or the center of the change
Race is discussed and shared but it is never claimed
Why is it that if Blacks "struggle the most" with literacy
Our faces and our thinking are not headlined in the industry
It's just a wondering that I have, not fault to be had
Doesn't make it right or wrong; doesn't make it good or bad
Just thinking on why with our rich literacy history
So many times the only Black person in the room is me
Frustrated? Maybe. I think a more appropriate word is concerned. I am concerned that every time I am a participant or a speaker at a literacy conference or seminar there are very few African Americans speaking or participating. I began to wonder at the causes. Is it just a numbers thing? There are more white teachers, professors, or maybe there are more whites in the geographical region a conference or seminar is held. But is this really why?
Recent experiences prompted me to review literacy conferences in 2015 and the start of 2016 to see if they represented racial diversity as a means to analyze the importance of culture and race in the literacy industry. These included conferences sponsored by the
Association of Literacy Educators and Researchers (November, 2015), The International Literacy Association (June, 2015), National Reading Recovery Conference (February, 2016), Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative (October, 2016), and Illinois Reading Council Conference (October, 2015). I looked at the theme of the conference, and the race of the people who were the promoted speakers. Promoted speakers included keynote, general session or luncheon speakers, and sponsored/advertised speakers called out in catalogs. Not all speakers are university professors but from those that were, I looked at some of the universities that they were affiliated with (ten total) and the literacy faculty at these universities. I stuck with faculty for the Masters and or PHD in literacy and read the descriptions of the professor's major areas of study. I excluded any math, science, history, etc., professor couched within a larger department like curriculum and instruction. I used pictures of the staff looking for
phenotypic markers for people of African descent, and my knowledge of how these persons have identified themselves in past communications to identify them as African Americans. For this commentary, I am using the term race versus ethnicity to highlight that
race is "a socially and historically constructed ideological system that permeates all social, cultural, economic and political domains, and thus a major determinant of power" (De-Cuir-Gunby, 2006, p. 93). It is critical to look at how race has been used to keep certain groups powerless. It is important to my wondering about the color of literacy.
So what did I discover? Without including Illinois Reading Council Conference in 2015 (I'll explain a bit later), 8.75% of the speakers were African American (7 of 80). At the 2015 Illinois Reading Council Conference, none of the general session speakers, special event speakers, sponsored or advertised speakers were African American. They are not included in the total number because some speakers were repeat speakers in morning and afternoon sessions as well as across days. This made it more difficult to tease out the total number of speakers. I did not look at topics, just seeing who's who. Just trying to understand who is representing what works best for all children as some of the conference themes imply-Literacy for All or Transforming Lives Through Literacy.
Of the 10 universities reviewed including the University of Illinois (Chicago and Urbana-Champaign campuses) Michigan State, Teachers College-Columbia and Georgia State, 13% of literacy professors are African American (12 of 90).
What does this mean? What does this mean if every statistic from NAEP to the ACT says African Americans are not as proficient as whites in reading or writing?
In Illinois only 17% of African Americans met the ACT Reading Benchmark score of 22 with an average reading score of 17.2 (compared to 54% of white students). (
). An additional statistic that is jarring was reported by Alfred Tatum (2012) in his report Literacy Practices for African-American Male Adolescents,
While preparing this paper, I could not identify one urban school district in the United States with 40 percent or more of African-American males reading at a proficient level" (p. 2). If I accept this as the condition of African American literacy in the United States then I have to ask where are the African American voices in the industry?
I only have questions and no answers in this commentary. However, I do want us to ponder why this is the case and if it matters. If race represents power, then there are few to no ideas being represented by the group being rendered literately and literally powerless.
It doesn't matter where or when
or in what space we seem to be
the voices of African Americans
Is rarely heard or seen
What does it mean if of 80 presenters
Only 7 are Black
Is lack of diversity in literacy an issue we must attack
The silence is deafening
I'll add some more reality
2 Asians and 2 Latinos of 80 hardly add variety
A conference with NO COLOR
I ask again how can this be
Wondering, just wondering what is the color of literacy