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  • Writer's pictureBenay Hicks

Books Belong Here, Too

“Just got in the car and already reading…Thanks Carl. He is beyond happy!” – DM Barbershop client David, whose son Bjorn is pictured here

By Nadiah Porter, Community Partnerships Manager

A tangible fear of reading has been a common experience in the Black community for years and can be traced back to times when slaves were banned from the practice altogether. I was raised in a family of teachers, healthcare workers, and actors. Reading wasn’t just an essential part of my education, but of my childhood as well. I have fond memories of reading at home as a kid. But I also very vividly remember read-aloud loud times in school. And they were more than discouraging.

Whenever it was time to read in front of the class, my classmates and I would focus on a “grade appropriate” book for about a week or two…trudging through pages, trying to digest storylines without stammering, yearning for teacher approval, and hoping that the other children wouldn’t notice us stumble over the simplest of words. We were each given a couple of lines to read in front of the class, and I would usually do pretty well and glided over sentences. But some of my peers, some of the Black boys in particular, would start and stop. Start and stop. And one to two slow-moving minutes later, they would finish their line or lines, reading few, and sometimes none of the words, correctly.

And usually, there was laughter.

In my adulthood, I now know that the reading struggles of my classmates were not at all uncommon or some isolated sign of the times. Black boys are still the least likely of all student groups to read on grade level, to read for fun, and to identify as readers. Last week’s blogpost highlighted just how few African American boys from low income households are reading at proficiency. And it is because of numbers like these, and our mission to ensure that all children have the literacy support they need, that Book Harvest has joined literacy champions around the country in their efforts to increase literacy supports for Black boys by way of barbershops.

Barber Carl Rogers

Although the books in barbershops concept is not our own, it hits close to home. So I decided to help pilot Book Harvest’s version of this initiative by reaching out to my own barber, Carl Rogers of DM Barbershop in Durham. I wanted to partner with a barber who I knew would be aware of the education crisis of Black boys. And I am grateful that he is also willing to tell his story, and open up about his own experiences with reading as a child and as an adult.

“I have only been comfortable with reading out loud for the last 15 years of my life…”

This is just one of the thoughts expressed by Carl during one of our conversations on why doing this work is so important to us, and why it’s personal. I also learned that growing up, Carl had almost identical experiences to the ones I witnessed during read-aloud periods as a child. He was put in remedial classes in elementary school, which turned out to be attributed more to his skin color, than to his intellect. He says that books never interested him, which speaks to the need for children to see themselves reflected in the things they read. And he mentioned the laughter of the other children while he and others read. He talked about being a hands-on learner, and that being one of the reasons why he thrives as a barber (and because his father was a barber as well.) And despite valuing his own way of learning, Carl is firmly dedicated to supporting the literacy skills of young Black boys in Durham.

Relationships with barbers can carry as much weight as relationships with doctors and even faith leaders. Because going to the barbershop can be a regular part of a young man’s life, there is likely to be authentic conversation and close connection between a boy and his barber. Barbershops are one of the best places to reintroduce Black boys to books. There is no pressure to read right. No one pushing them to hurry up or giggling at their mistakes. And having books available benefits adults in the barbershop as well, because Black fathers are reading with their children, and they are given a reason and a means of strengthening their own literacy skills.

It is initiatives like these, where learning happens in non-traditional places, that are crucial for improved life outcomes for Black boys and for all of our children. And it is up to all of us in all areas of the community to create these spaces where children with varying levels of development and learning styles feel celebrated and supported. We commend Charles for taking this leap and contributing to the increasingly book-rich community of Durham. Since setting up his Community Book Bank shelf earlier this year, Carl has made over 200 books available to children in his shop and offered free haircuts for eight young men who successfully completed Merrick-Moore’s Young Boys of Color Book Club. And his clients have even begun to donate their own books to Book Harvest!


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