At the age of 13, Yusef Shakoor was part of a gang. At 15, his mother made him a ward of the state and at age 19, he was imprisoned for a crime he says he didn’t commit. The son of a single parent with limited support, Shakoor never imagined pursuing higher education. When confronted with the opportunity to go to college, Shakoor said the idea scared him so much he wanted to kill himself. It was a book given to him when he met his father in prison that changed his life.
Shakoor is now an author and owner of Urban Network Bookstore and CEO of Urban Gorilla Entertainment. He was one of seven educated and well-established African American men discussing illiteracy and its impact on society during a panel discussion on the issue during the Motown Literacy Jam Conference held Saturday, November 12th at the Virgil H. Carr Cultural Center in Detroit.
“I didn’t know anything about college. I’m from Zone 8. (near Wayne State University). I walked by there every day, but I never thought I could go to Wayne State University”, said Yusef, who added that social realities along with values contribute to illiteracy among African Americans.
“When we talk to young people about becoming doctors and lawyers. I never talked to a lawyer until he helped me go to prison. I never talked to a judge until he sentenced me to prison. I never talked to a doctor until he sewed me up from being shot. These are social realities for young black folks in our community.”
Luther Keith, Founder and CEO of Arise Detroit, a grassroots community organization, stressed that being able to read is a path to a better life. “We’re not telling them how precious the value is to learn how to be educated. We have to get our young people to realize that it is cool to read a book and write about it”
“We have to stress the importance and value of literacy and reading, not because it’s something to do, but this is how you create a great life for you and your family.”
Vincent Alexandria, author and founder of Brother 2 Brother Literary Symposium (B2BLS) echoed those sentiments. “Our values and our culture have changed. There was a time when education was important. We came to some point when we had arrived and that was the farthest thing from the truth, because parents stopped reading to their children”,
Alexandria also said reading with children rather than diverting them to other activities such as video games directly correlates to poor performance in school. “If we aren’t spending time with our children, we are creating human capital for the prison systems. You want to find illiteracy–go to the prisons. That’s where all the brothers are and they’re learning to read in prison. Does that make sense?” he asked. “It’s an oxymoron. Children should not have to go to prison to learn how to read.”
What’s more valuable? What we have or what we are,” asked author and educator Eddie Connor. According to Connor, the average pre-literacy exposure for black kids is 200 hours before kindergarten compared to white kids who get 5000 hours of pre-literacy exposure before they hit kindergarten.
“We create a space in our home for the kids to be able to play X-box or Playstation 3, but do we have a quiet space for kids to read? There’s a direct connect between illiteracy and incarceration. Eighty percent of prisoners don’t have a GED or a high school diploma. Also, 80 percent of juvenile delinquents are illiterate. This is educational genocide. We should be in an uproar”, said Connor.
“We’ve been occupying Wallstreet. It’s time to occupy our communities, our schools and our churches. With 75 percent of young black people in Detroit who are dropping out of high school. Last time I checked some 200 years ago it was illegal for black people to read. Now we are involved in our own un-education”, added Connor.
Calvin Colbert expressed that caring is at the heart of the issue. “Throughout the community, we have to reinforce reading. Our young people have to see us as leaders, as parents reinforcing this desire to read. All of us know our lives became more valuable to us from reading”, said Colbert, Executive Director at Detroit Impact Center.
Reading was personal when I was a child. Growing up in Detroit, regularly, I would see a bookmobile come down the street. It was like the ice cream truck. I always associated fun with reading, “ said Khary Kimani Turner, author of Surrender: The Rise, Fall and Revelation of Kwame Kilpatrick
‘My community sent a message that excellence was necessary and I could be all I want to be to get to that place. What I appreciate about the bookmobile and the Duffield Library, was that I gained an appreciation of the process and the science behind understanding what I was reading”, added Turner.
Other issues related to illiteracy were discussed including education, health, and economic empowerment.
Dr. Reginald J. Eadie, President of Detroit Receiving Hospital who also spoke on the panel explained how illiteracy impacts the health of the community.
“Some of the things we see on a regular basis at the hospital are extremely frightening. Can you imagine what it’s like seeing more than 110,000 people at Detroit Receiving Hospital when half of them can’t even tell you what’s wrong, because there’s no communication? From a health standpoint and how it affects the community—it’s devastating.”
“What does it mean to have high blood pressure? I sit and I draw pictures and I try to use lyrics from rap songs to make sense out of things. It brings tears to my eyes and saddens my heart. We need to get involved in our schools. There are things we can do”, said Dr. Eadie.
“My firm belief is that education is the key to our liberation,” said Kenneth Harris, former Detroit Charter Commission member and President of the Black Chamber of Commerce.
“We got to get back to bringing these kids back into our businesses and finding out what their passion is. Booker T. Washington said it best in 1895, when he said ‘vocation and trade will equal entrepreneurial dreams that will create generational wealth’.”
“From an economic standpoint, we have to get back to the basics and create an entrepreneurial society in our community and more importantly, write the check. We got to buy the books to put in these kids hands,” Harris added.
Alexandria challenged the audience to act now. “How many of us today are going to go home today and do something? Don’t just talk about it, be about it. It takes each and every one of us to start something today. Don’t just wait until tomorrow. Do something today to make a difference, because every little thing that you do will spread to somebody else.”