Barack Obama’s forthcoming ascent to the presidency will hopefully help improve access to African-American children’s and young adult literature, a scholar said Tuesday. Dr. Wendy Rountree, an assistant professor of English at North Carolina Central University, said Obama’s well-known affinity for reading and education can help encourage Black youth to read as much as possible, especially stories portraying Blacks in a positive light. She noted TV news stories about Black boys describing themselves as “little Obamas” by working hard at school and planning to attend college. Rountree grew up an avid reader with books by famous authors such as Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary. But she would have appreciated an opportunity to also read Mildred Pitts Walker, Rosa Guy and authors whom she did not learn of until adulthood. The dissemination problem, Rountree said, may lie in social gaps. For instance, she grew up in a part of North Carolina that didn’t desegregate until the mid-1970s, despite the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education court ruling. “The possibilities become limitless in the world of a book,” she said. “As scholars, we need to build the intellectual, social and psychological foundation for children through not only textbooks but also non-fiction and fiction.” Her remarks came during a session of the Modern Language Association’s annual convention, which drew 8,544 scholars. The MLA’s 800 sessions this week included several examining reading skills and language nuances of Black youth. Rountree urged scholars to rediscover lost writers of African-American stories for children, saying it could spark more publishing opportunities for contemporary writers. By comparison, the discovery of lost work by Zora Neale Hurston in the 1970s not only led to a renaissance of her work, she said, but also helped more Black women writers get published. Not only is reading crucial, other scholars said, but so is speech. Dr. Vershawn Young, assistant professor of African-American studies and rhetoric at the University of Iowa, criticized the efforts of some educators, including Blacks, to discourage Black students from using any Black vernacular in the classroom. In a session entitled “Minority Discourse,” Young deemed it unfair to encourage Black youth to mesh formal English and Black vernacular at home but to use only formal English at school. “If speech habits come from mid- and upper-class Whites, it forces Blacks to recognize the superiority of Whites,” he said. “Educators who support this kind of code-switching aren’t conscious racists, but the racism in code-switching cannot be denied. Black English is in effect rendered inferior.”
Young said the idea was as absurd as piano players limiting themselves to white keys. “Pianists don’t play just the ivories. They play ebonies and ivories all the time in classical and jazz and hip-hop. Both sets of keys are needed.” He urged his colleagues to ferret out and critique this ideology whenever possible, pointing out that teachers don’t hold White students to the same standard. He noted that with language so intricately connected to one’s identity, some Black students refuse to give up Black English at school. “And why should they have to?”
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