Two years ago I went to go visit a school of 4th and 5th graders. It was in Oakland, and many of the kids were from tough areas of the city. I went there to talk about nonviolence and the value of education. One of the gifts I brought for the kids was The Art of Learning, by Josh Waitzkin. I also brought t-shirts and hoodies. The kids went nuts for all of it.
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Most of the kids were excited. But one did not want a book. He looked like the model in the Rasta Baby flag. He glared at me when I put the book on his desk and said “I don’t read books.” He slid the book back to me. The teacher was caught between embarrassment and anger. She told him to take the book.
I told her to relax, “We don’t want to force anything on anybody.” Then I turned to the boy. “Look at me” I asked. His eyes were glued to the floor and his arms crossed in pure defiance. I stood there in silence. He realized I was not going to move from where I was standing. He looked up. Our eyes met. His eyes were as dark as his skin. This gave his presence a unique strength.
I spoke quietly to him. “You don’t have to take this book. But I want you to look at me and hear me now. The greatest gift a person can ever give you, is a book. For the rest of your life, never forget that– OK?”
For an instant it was as if the class was entirely empty. As if it was just he and I in the room. His head slowly nodded”OK.”
I set the book on a desk between us. “I’m not going to make you take this book. I’m going to leave it here. You make the decisions for what you want.”
I returned to the rest of the class and began my lesson. A few minutes later two girls entered the room. Despite being a few minutes late they were passionate about the class. One immediately asked for a t-shirt, which I handed over. Her friend quickly shouted “I want a book!”
“Go ahead and grab that book over there” I said, pointing to the desk. She smiled with joy approaching her new book.
I looked over at the boy. He had not softened the anger in his eyes. I might as well have been looking at Lil Wayne on his first day in prison. It scares me how angry some youngsters can be. The girl was about half way to the book when I spoke to the boy.
“A lot of things in chess deal with knowing what you want, and acting on it. If you want the book- say you want the book. I gave it to you. But if you don’t, there is no need to hold anyone else back from the knowledge in it. If she wants a copy of The Art of Learning, let her take that one. The question is, what do you want?”
For about five seconds his eyes darted between my eyes, her eyes, and the book. Then he said “I want the book.”
I was so happy to hear it. My heart smiled. After I gave it to him, I actually found a copy in my car for the girl. Everybody won that day. I still wonder about him. I wonder if he read the book. I wonder if he liked it. I wonder if he is still reading.
I walk the halls of the school I work at today, I see so many Black boys who seem allergic to reading. Black girls on the other hand are reading books all the time. Now, to be honest much of they read I don’t have a passion for. A lot of them are ‘hood novels (what a huge industry that is) most others are vampire fantasy books. But they are still reading.
I think Sister Souljah is probably the most loved Black female writer of their generation. The Black girls at my school are pretty violent. They fight with an anger I have never seen in Black girls from prior generations. But if you want to keep peace in the building, mention Sister Souljah. They always ask me if I know her. I met her many moons ago when she was still making records. Then when I ask if they have read about her life in the book No Disrespect, they never heard of it. It blows my mind. It amazes me how just a few years change the entire way you view a person. I love it though. The passion they embrace her books with is unmatched.
Teachers often complain about what books the girls are reading. They ask “Why happened to reading Shakespeare?”
I tell the teachers I’m more content to see kids reading something, than nothing at all. A child with the discipline to read vampire books, may eventually be directed to read the work of Alice Walker, Maya Angelou and Malcolm X. A child with no discipline for reading, is almost a guaranteed lost cause.
Reading is what liberated the minds of men like Malcolm X, Hurricane Carter and many others. I encourage them to read things like The 50th Law and The 48 Laws of Power. When I talk to young Black males they say they have to go to prison to read. They really plan to read, after they go to jail. I explain they can read right now, and never have to go to prison at all. I have spoken at many prisons, and tell them they are not ready for what awaits them. Few of them hear me.
I also notice that kids in the ‘hood don’t have Kindles and Nooks, etc. They have books. The price of books these days has never seemed cheaper. Still kids will tell me they don’t have money for books as they walk past me in $300.00 jackets.
I consistently encourage Black males to read. But the vast majority have zero interest. I won’t ever quit. I’m known as the guy at school who always has a book in his hand.
Next time you see a child you love, let them know that by getting them a book. It does not have to be a history book on Black issues. Get them something you believe they would really love to know more about. If they love sports, get them a book on football. If they love hood novels break one out. As you hand it to them, remind them that the greatest gift one person can give another is a book. Share the love, of reading.