I recently wrote two articles on struggles for critical literacy, which I posted over on the Black Orchid Collective blog. These are part of a 3 part series called “Reading for Revolution”. The first article, “Steal the Ability to Read this Book”, makes a case for seizing the reading skills that slave-masters and capitalist bosses have systematically denied oppressed communities. It also highlights the importance of literacy in revolutionary movements historically and today:
There is a reason why the slave masters made it illegal for slaves to learn to read. In the hands of oppressed people, written words can be revolutionary. They were back then, and they still are today.
Of course, the written word would not be powerful without the spoken word. Spoken words have always been a weapon of struggle, from the storytelling of the West Africangriots through tales of resistance told in code on the plantation so the masters couldn’t understand.
But the written word builds off these oral traditions in equally powerful ways. It allows oppressed people to communicate with potential comrades who are not immediately in their presence – and that’s crucial when they’re trying to overthrow a global system of oppression. It allows for stories of events like the Haitian revolution to spread to places like the plantations of the US South, inspiring uprisings there, even if people there had never met someone who had participated in Haiti’s revolt against slavery. Texts like Walker’s Appeal, smuggled into the US South, were powerful calls to rise up, calls that the masters needed to silence at all costs. Hence, the masters imposed illiteracy – they made sure potential rebels wouldn’t know how to read these revolutionary texts.
That forced illiteracy continues today with school systems that put a lot of effort into training students to be good capitalist workers – or future obedient prisoners. They do this instead of teaching students how to teach themselves to read. They present reading as something that is boring, dry, and whitewashed, instead of showing students how to love reading, and how to find strength in it over the course of their lives. This is especially true for Black youth, and youth who are economic refugees from the places around the world that the US dominates through its empire. As Dead Prez put it, “They schools ain’t teachin us, what we need to know to survive. They schools don’t educate, all they teach the people is lies”.
This is not an argument for abandoning struggles to defend and transform public education. As I wrote earlier, I am all for expanding the kinds of struggles teachers, parents, and students are waging, from the MAP test boycott to fights against austerity budget cuts and privatization.
However, when we say “defend and transform”, this transformation needs to confront the ways in which the school system is deeply embedded in the historical process of creating and recreating institutionalized race and class hierarchies in our society. In order to fight these, we’ll need to build spaces outside of the schools where we can learn from each other and can grow through struggle in ways that are not currently possible in public school classrooms. We can use this new knowledge to fight for better education in the classroom as well. Part 2 of Reading for Revolution makes a case for these kinds of movement-based study groups. I am currently working on Part 3, which will provide some practical suggestions and curriculum materials for how to conduct study groups.
For the full articles, please click here