Are We Literate Yet?

Originally published in 1994 in The Times of Trenton as “African Americans in the year 2000: then is now.” At that time we were all looking ahead to the new millennium with some trepidation. now that we have surpassed 2020, has anything changed?

It broke my heart a few weeks ago to get a letter from my cousin and to have his partner mention offhandedly that all these years he has had to write my cousin’s letters for him. As part of the so-called new generation of African Americans, how is it possible that I can be more educated than most of any color, can make more money than many, and can see much of the world whenever I wish, while my first cousin cannot read or write, cannot get a job, and will likely die of AIDS before he gets out of his forties?

It is increasingly difficult to figure out the order of things, let alone the future of things because so many “things” seem to be in total disarray. We are struggling with a problem of definition, sometimes asking the wrong questions and sometimes looking in the wrong direction for answers. Many northeastern members of my family were actually better off in the Nineteen Twenties than they are now! I remember looking at the old photos of my grandparents attending the Massachusetts governor’s ball in the 1920s. My grandmother was a registered nurse, her husband was a sleeping car porter and her sister was an attorney: together they represented important elements of the black bourgeoisie at the time.

Today the photos are gone, the house has burned down and it is unlikely that either my cousin or I would be invited to a governor’s ball. On the other hand, there were only four black female lawyers in the entire country when my great aunt was practicing; now there are many, many more, to say nothing of black participation in every sector of the society at almost every level. The future may indeed be forward, but it is a lot harder to tell which way is “up.”

The very concept of “The Year 2000” is an illusion. We look to a number to explain a complex set of circumstances. No single number, whether that number signifies the beginning of a new millennium or an old debt, captures what we are doing through the policies we enact, the love we express or fail to express, or the distance we establish between ourselves and the rest of the world. African Americans are a symbolic group in American culture, just as the year 2000 is a symbolic number. Both represent hope and achievement, and both also represent dismay. The true meaning of the millennial concept is to be found in our collective consciousness, not in our mathematics or our calendar.

The Gift of the Ever-Changing Present

The year 2000 is NOW, created anew each moment by our complacency or commitment. To look in the mirror in this continuous present moment is to find the answer to what lies ahead for all of us, African American or other, in the year 2000 and beyond.

Is it possible that the ostensibly literate among us are skilled at the mechanics of reading, yet understand little of the content they encounter on the pages of our culture? Do we read the face of the homeless woman who sits each day in the pizza parlor and wonder what happens to her when the parlor closes? Do we read the heart of the person who looks and acts the least like us? Do we read the souls of our cities?

When Rev. Willie Smith asked me to do this piece I responded with a glib, “Sure!” But by the time I sat down to write I was in tears. I thought of my cousin, of the newly obtained knowledge that he cannot read or write and that he is dying. Then I remembered my mother’s telling me that he and every one of his brothers and sisters had failed the first grade. How can we fail our children in the first grade?! My cousin does not live in some rural outpost, mind you; he lives in the Boston metropolitan area, a region that acts as if it is the center of the universe and hosts about two hundred colleges and universities within a twenty-mile radius, some of which are the best in the country.

When I heard the news about my cousin I felt guilty and I felt a sense of desperation that the magnitude of the problems facing our community might defy human intervention. And yet it is human beings who created these circumstances. Now I know that each breath, each act of omission or commission, each story read to my granddaughter, each callous refusal to understand and embrace the soul of every beloved – first my own and then all others as if they were my own – is the year 2000 that I will have helped to create. Any sense of powerlessness I might have felt with regard to my cousin’s illiteracy or his illness is overshadowed by my absolute and uncompromising power to make myself emotionally, intellectually, ethically, and globally literate.

My people will live or die by the individual action of all people. If we take care of the now and treat all children as our own, then the year 2000 – or 2050 – will take care of itself.

EPILOGUE

MY COUSIN DIED A SHORT TIME AFTER THIS PIECE WAS PUBLISHED. HE NEVER LEARNED HOW TO READ AND WRITE.

Published by Helen L. Stewart, Ph.D.

Endlessly curious, writer, speaker, blogger, intuitive, author, consultant. Retired university academic administrator and faculty member. Citizen of the world. Traveler. Human being. Perhaps in reverse order.

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