A Literate African-American Boy: Fact or Fantasy?

If life imitates art, as the aphorism goes, I sure wish the boy drawn in a C.F. Payne illustration would become real like Pinocchio did. The illustration depicts an African-American boy standing on a street corner engrossed in reading a book while a crowd of people behind him is enthralled by the latest technological gadgets displayed in a store window. When “Word Power” first appeared on the back of an issue of Reader’s Digest, I was immediately struck by the powerful yet relevant message that reading a book still matters in today’s digital, video game-leavened society. Marita Golden, author of The Word, eloquently states the importance of reading a book.  She said, “The seductions, innovations, and revolutionary changes brought forth by the computer chip do not erase the fact that the bound book remains one of the most convenient and impressive of technological inventions.”  She further describes what reading a book does for us. “It provides a private, intimate, sensual experience that results in expansion of the mind and enhancement of the soul,” said Golden.


I was encouraged to see an African-American boy leisurely reading a book in Payne’s illustration, especially when it is something I rarely see inside or outside of classrooms in some communities.  The 2011 Nation’s Report Card reveals that 41% of African-American eighth-graders read below basic level, 44% at basic level, and only 14% at proficient level. That tells me that, for many kids, the practice of reading books is not a priority. I am sure many of us are aware of the grim realities about the educational crisis facing the vast majority of black students in this country.  However, the focus of this blog is not to dwell on the problems of our educational institutions but to help find solutions. I want to know how the boy in this picture can become the rule rather than the exception.


Fortunately, I do know a real life example of a young man just like the boy in the picture.  His name is Cullen Watkins, of East St. Louis, Illinois. Cullen is a freshman at Morehouse College in Atlanta and an avid reader.  In this interview, Cullen tells how he developed his path to literacy.


LM: What would you say was the greatest influence on your path to literacy?


Cullen: The influence of my family members played a great role in my path to enjoying reading, but also just all the places it took me. I loved reading books about people and culture in India because I could see myself there as I read, and with a book I didn’t need to be near a plug. I could be in a car, on the bus, in my room, or even outside. Reading gave me a lot of options to learn and have fun and I took them.


LM: Was there anything specific that your parents did to help you get interested in reading?


Cullen: My parents made my brothers and I read at least 30 minutes a night during the school week in elementary school.


LM: That’s great. Did you have books in the home or did you get your books from the library?


Cullen: We picked out our own books.  And my mom bought the Laura Ingalls Wilder (Little House on the Prairie) series and The Boxcar Children series of books and many others.  That way we would have something else to read when we finished a book.  We slowly built up a library at home.


LM: Did most of your friends have books in the home or were you an exception?


Cullen: I was an exception, I think.  I would say 20% of my friends had books in the home.


LM: You said you had difficulty reading in first grade? Did reading books at night help you get better?


Cullen: She (my mom) would sit me down on the couch and help sound words out and practice reading for about 20 minutes each day during the week until I learned.


LM: How have your teachers helped you develop your reading skills?


Cullen:  I had older, old school teachers in elementary school…we got stickers.  You got a pat on the back for reading.


LM: Are there any books that stand out to you that have impacted you?


Cullen: A Hope in the Unseen. It talks about this black kid who wants to go to college.


LM: What’s on your nightstand now, besides your textbooks?


Cullen: I’m reading, or re-reading The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens, by Sean Covey.


LM: Finally, why do you think reading and literacy are important?


Cullen: There are opportunities and doors that will open to you the more you read.


LM:  Thank you, Cullen.


Note: Part 2 of this blog will feature an interview with Cullen’s parents, Bradley and Debbie Watkins.

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