Saturday, May 28, 2022

The autodidactic: Reading for social resistance and empathy


Photo: Dyslexia Help: University of Michigan

The mass anti-racist protests that followed the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin of Minneapolis Police Department on May 25, 2020 provided a glimmer of hope for victims of racism. For the silent men and women of African descent who experience constant societal stigmatization and police brutality, the protests showed that societal attitude can change.

While the protests were emblematic of what is possible in the fight against systemic marginalization and its mitigation, these protests have a way of ending up becoming events rather than sustained anti-racism processes.

To change social attitudes and bring about sociocultural and systemic changes, therefore, sustained and accessible educational and cultural strategies become necessary. Fighting Anti-Black Racism or Afrophobia need a multi-sectorial, multi-layered approach.

There are now calls and petitions to teach “Black history” in all Canadian schools following George Floyd’s murder.

This essay suggests that reading fiction and history should be encouraged among elementary and high school students. This suggestion may sound odd. In the age of social media and Netflix, however, reading books has become less attractive.

I once asked a young teenage mother during an intake if she had an email. I wanted to send her some resources. She told me she had Facebook but not an email. When I asked how she could have a Facebook account if she did not have an email. She told me she did not know.

When I asked another young man about reading, he told me he liked to read. When I asked what he reads, he couldn’t really tell me. He then smiled and said, ‘some articles…online.” He couldn’t even tell me the website and the topics he likes.

Reading books is not everything. But it opens a world one does not see every day. It makes you travel without travelling.

While students are encouraged to read in school, most students take up reading because it is required. For young people brought up to face the reality of racism, this is a travesty.

However, reading for self-empowerment or to develop empathy among children and the youth needs the involvement of parents and community mentors. This, I hope, would make reading part of children and youth social and cultural growth. Emotional strength in the face of racism is a necessity.

Reading may encourage students from dominant social groups to develop a sense of empathy with “racialized” students.

“Racialized” students may not only develop empathy, but they may also be empowered to resist misinformation about their history. Students of African descent are confronted by two things in the school curriculum: Lack of history about them, or a distorted version of their history. This is a consequent of institutionalized racism.

But we cannot leave corrective measures to people who are not affected by a distorted history. It is like making racism fix racism.

There is now, however, a cautious optimism in Canada’s campaign against racism.

People in positions of authority are thinking of curriculum changes to include ‘Black history’ for all students. This a hopeful beginning. But this is not enough. It is more mechanical than sentimental. We need both. People are more motivated if they have a sentimental connection with the moral issue in question. Why would people care about racism if it doesn’t affect them?

Making reading a cultural pastime for young people therefore becomes important. It may take a young Toronto teenager to Nigeria of Achebe’s Arow of God, the South Africa of Peter Abrahams’ Mine Boy, the Barbados of George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin, the Ohio of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, or the West Africa of Leo Frobenius’ The Voice of Africa….etc.

Consequently, reading fiction, African and African diaspora history become important. This can be buttressed through literacy programs at young age.  In a multicultural country like Canada, this is vital in the fight against racism.

It is important to note that Canadian immigration was openly racist as late as 1962. Racism, according to David Matas, was the immigration policy.

Below are important examples of reading programs.

In Toronto, The Reading Partnership  works with parents and children to help develop a reading culture at an earlier age.

As Camesha Cox, the founder of The Reading Partnership has argued, encouraging literacy and reading at an early age can create “a culture of reading and learning.”

Using the work of late American novelist David Foster Wallace, the California-based Reading Partners writes that reading helps ‘build developmental skills of emotional intelligence and empathy, enabling our young readers to better connect with other perspectives and human experiences.’

Maria Nikoleja, a professor of children literature at Cambridge University argues that ‘the main attraction of fiction is the possibility of understanding other people in a way impossible in real life.’

For young people whose histories and cultures do not feature in Canadian educational curricula, this aspect of reading becomes important.

What exacerbates marginalizing experiences when young people find themselves stereotyped are lack of constructive strategies they can use to push back while informing others and remaining safe.

When they encounter racism, they either fight or become sad.

 ‘My brother is always getting into fights over’ the N-Word, said Zora, who was interviewed by Jennifer Kelly in her book, Under the Gaze.

This violence is instigated by a sense of helplessness. But when these young people fight, they are easily stigmatized and criminalized.  

Even a child as young as a six-year-old has been handcuffed by the police without parental consent.

This would not happen if this child was not of African descent.

In a multicultural Canada where meaningful inter-ethnic and inter-racial cross-cultural exchange is extremely limited (or non-existent), equipping young people with historical knowledge about themselves and others can help in combating stereotypes.

Not only does reading enable young people to develop positive feelings towards others, but it also offers them constructive ways to express their emotions.

In the age of negative social media influence, encouraging students to read fiction is something teachers, parents and youth workers need to encourage in all students because research supports its usefulness.

Reading may also help “racialized” youth to self-educate. This may help them resist stereotyping through corrective engagements.

One of Jennifer Kelly’s participants said he knew a historical fact his social studies teacher didn’t know. “I told him,” Desmond said to Kelly, ‘that the first lady in the newspaper industry was a Black lady [Mary Ann Shadd], and he didn’t know.”

Desmond added that these “Black stuff”, which are supposed to be taught in social studies, are missing.

More than 20 years later, what Desmond said is sadly still the case. "I would love to see more about Black history and about racism in our society today and how we can face it in the future,’ said Bayush Golla to CBC on June 17, 2020.

Desmond felt empowered, but he was not alone. “Last year I was able to teach people stuff about Steve Biko,’ said Grace. ‘You feel so much better,’ added Kathleen, ‘You walk away thinking, “yeah we did we did that.” You want to brag. I would go to school and say, “did you know?”’

Like Desmond, Grace and Kathleen, Dagmawit Worku, a year 12 student in Cameron Heights Collegiate in Kitchener, Ontario, is still self-teaching “Black History.”  

This is an educational, community-based empowerment racialized youths, especially Africans and students of African descent, do not have access to in school curricula.

If there is anything history has taught us, then it is this: It is morally dangerous to assume that people will do something because it is morally important. A sentimental connection is most of the time a moral motivator.

Therefore, parents and students resort to ways of getting this empowering knowledge. Lorraine, another student Kelly interviewed said that her father ordered books from the United States “books you don’t see around here.” Kathleen puts it well when she said that “If it was your own culture…you would work hard so much harder.”

Canada may be multicultural de jure, but it is monocultural de facto.

Encouraging children to improve their literacy at an early age and then urging them to take reading as a cultural activity may help raise informed and compassionate youths. Excluding “Black history” today is not a question of malice or racism per se; it is a question of sentimental connection. As Kathleen has put it, “If it was your own culture…you would work hard so much harder.”



* Kuir ë Garang is the editor of The Philosophical Refugee

To cite:

Garang, K. ë. (2022). The autodidactic: Reading for social resistance and empathy. The Philosophical Refugee.



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