The simple truth is I don’t remember when it was that I knew I could read; it seems as if reading was one of the apps included in my newborn starter kit. A stretch to be sure, but this habit of reading has been with me for a long time. The memory of me leaning against the cherry tree in our back yard with a book propped on my knees competes with another memory of me scrunched down under the dining room table with a glass of milk, a peanut butter sandwich and, you guessed it, a book! Books filled with majesty and wonder, the excitement of dramatic encounters, history, biography, autobiography, travel adventures; anything I could get my hands on qualified as acceptable reading.
And then, I went to school. Here another dimension of reading was opened for my discovery. I learned that books could lead you to the headwaters of almost any flowing stream of information. If you wanted to know how and when about this or that, it was most likely to be found in a book. One of the more eye-opening discoveries came in high school, where Negro history was a required course. Now my reading became a more well-sculpted process. I learned about the man for whom our elementary school had been named; he was Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, who was, in the late 19th century, city judge for Little Rock. And about Paul Laurence Dunbar, the famous poet for whom our high school was named. Their stories were more than inspirational; their ability to navigate a terrain designed to crush them told me that I too could succeed.
You see, I grew up in a time when racial discrimination was ordained by law. This meant that I was not able to gain access to all of the potential reading material available in Little Rock. The main library was deemed to be a “whites only” institution. The “Ivy Branch” library, located in an area where many black people lived, was the city’s concession to its black citizens. I became a regular patron at the Ivy Branch; I read just about every book they put on their shelves. OK, another stretch, but you get the picture!
My friend Cleo, who now lives in Atlanta, told me last year that he would often rush to the library to check out a book before I got there but was more often than not chagrined to find my name already stamped on the sign-out card.
Even if you are not as addicted as I have become, there is something about this notion of reading that bears close scrutiny. What is the one thing that truly serves to separate people into groups? It is most certainly not race, you can be sure about that, and it not about how much money you have. It is instead the amount of knowledge you have gained; what you have learned during your sojourn on Earth.
And one of the more fascinating ways to learn is to read. Read about the options available to you as you seek to choose the best possible selections from life’s menu. Read about the lives of other people who look like you, see for yourself what strategies they employed to solve the mysteries of life. Read as if your life depended upon it; and in some cases that is very true indeed!
If you are a person of color reading these lines, I urge you to consider yet another vital reason to develop a voracious appetite for reading. There are pernicious narratives embedded in the national psyche, mythological tales designed to convince you and all others in your universe that you and your kind are not worthy to be included in the mainstream of human endeavor. Through reading you will find counter-narratives; you will discover voices that speak a truth you need to hear. Immersed as we are in a society splashing about in the stale waters of racist ideology, we need to use every tool at our disposal to avoid being infected by the viral organisms of racial hatred and notions of white superiority.
My assignment to groups of students I speak to around the country is for them to read one book per week, for life. Try it for yourself. See what a difference it can make in your ability to see through the fog of misinformation and obfuscation. Model for the universe the power of reading in your life; set the standard for those who will receive the baton from you as you finish your race.
Please join me and other amazing writers as we share our stories and books at the upcoming National Black Children’s Book Fair Tour kickoff events Friday, Nov. 7, at the Central High National Historic Site and the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, and continuing Saturday, Nov. 8, at Rockefeller Elementary, 700 W. 17th St. For more details and inquiries call 501-952-6169, email email@example.com or visit speakloudly.com.
Dr. Terrence Roberts is a retired clinical psychologist who is most publically known as a member of the Little Rock Nine. Currently CEO of his consulting firm, Terrence Roberts is the author of two books: “Lessons from Little Rock” and “Simple Not Easy: Reflections on community social responsibility and tolerance (Our National Conversation).” He will be the keynote speaker Saturday at Rockefeller Elementary; the event runs 9 a.m.-4 p.m.