How to Make a Difference this Black History Month

Since 1976, February has been named “Black History Month” to celebrate the many African American people who have helped shape our nation’s history. Today, it is easy for us to look back on a time when many African Americans went unrecognized for their accomplishments and think, “What a shame.” Often times, we learn about the tremulous past— a past that involves the severe mistreatment of minorities— and swear up and down that things are “different now.” We pride ourselves on living in a time and place where all people are treated fairly, and are given equal opportunities, no matter what ethnic background.

But is this thinking, this overestimation of America’s “greatness” based in reality? If so, why is it that unemployment rates in minority communities are up, and literacy rates in these same communities are down? Why, according to a survey conducted by the Department of Education, are over fifty percent of African American students in the fourth grade reading below skill level? Or why, according to a summary report from the African American Male Achievement Task Force, are African American twelfth-graders at the same reading levels as non-minority eighth graders? Statistics aside, the question here is this: why do African Americans struggle with reading?

Now for those of you who don’t fall into the category of non-reader, which I’ll go ahead and assume that if you’re reading this post and have an interest in this topic, is the majority of you, I encourage you to pause for a minute and step back. Think back to a time, for some maybe decades ago, for others, maybe only a few months, when you found yourself nose-deep in the pages of a book, falling in love with reading for the first time. What was it about that story that captured your heart and turned you on to a life of getting lost in literature? The action? The romance? The mystery? The plot twist at the end that set your head a-spinning? While all of these elements are crucial, no part of a story speaks to us as readers louder than one: the characters.

We believe that readers come for the action, but stay for the characters. As we read, we form an emotional bond with these fictitious people, which motivates us to hold on to the very end of the story. The reasons we fall so deeply for our beloved characters vary, but there is one common factor that many agree upon. In a survey conducted by First Book, a network of educators and community members dedicated to serving low-income children through books and educational resources, ninety percent of young readers agree that they prefer to read stories that reflect their specific worldviews, featuring characters that come from similar ethnic backgrounds as them. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; of course kids are attracted to stories they can relate to! The thrill of reading comes from placing yourself in the shoes of the protagonist and experiencing the adventure from their point of view.

Now, for a final statistic to bring it all home, provided again by a survey conducted by First Book. Out of 3500 titles, only 5.1% of books featured African American protagonists. Only 1.9% were about Latino characters, and 1.1% were about American Indians. Are we starting to see the connection here? This staggeringly low percentage of minority-centered books and the frighteningly low graduation and literacy rates among minorities can’t be unrelated. What if there were more books about minorities that kids from similar backgrounds could actually get excited about reading? What if we could take the stories of actual heroes, such as the African Americans being celebrated during Black History Month, and turn them into books that would then inspire minority kids not only to read, but to do great things? Would we start to see a difference in literacy, graduation, and unemployment rates within African American and Hispanic communities?

The ways we can make this happen are endless. If you’re a writer, discover one of the many stories of minorities accomplishing significant things and turn it into a kid’s book. If you’re a reader, buy more minority-centered stories, showing publishing companies that there is a demand. If you’re a teacher, teach these stories in your classroom, and inspire children of all backgrounds to aspire towards greatness. If you’re a parent, integrate these types of books into your bedtime routine, and subtly educate your kids on the importance of diversity.

In the not-so-distant future, equal opportunities will exist for people of all backgrounds, no matter their age, race, gender, income-level, or sexual orientation, and perhaps America’s proclaimed “greatness” will be more real than it is today. But in the meantime, don’t sit idly by and hope for the best. Let’s work together to create a better informed, more unified, and book-crazed future!