March 8, 2013

Recently I closed out a talk at the Martin Luther King public library with this quote:

“Today, because of . . . hope, coupled with the hard and painstaking labor of Americans sung and unsung, we live in a moment when the dream of equal opportunity is within reach for people of every color and creed. National African American History Month is a time to tell those stories of freedom won and honor the individuals who wrote them. We look back to the men and women who helped raise the pillars of democracy, even when the halls they built were not theirs to occupy. We trace generations of African Americans, free and slave, who risked everything to realize their God-given rights. . . . We have yet to reach the mountaintop, we cannot stop climbing.”

This quote comes from President Obama’s 2013 African American History Month proclamation.

Now consider this shameful paradox: Nearly 20 percent of adults in the District of Columbia cannot read the black history month proclamation by our nation’s first black president. They aren’t alone.

Only four in 10 D.C. third-graders are proficient readers. Put another way, the majority of D.C. third-graders are not developing the essential foundation for success in life: reading skills.

If this doesn’t change, these children will grow up unable to comprehend, let alone navigate, the world around them. Prescriptions, food labels, news bulletins — all will be mysteries.

They won’t realize their full potential as adults, and, what’s likely, neither will their own children. That’s all the more appalling when you consider what past generations sacrificed in order to read.

The thought of slaves being able to read struck fear and anger in the hearts of many plantation owners. How much of a threat was a literate slave?

Consider this from the Virginia revised code of 1819:

“All meetings or assemblages of slaves, or free Negroes or mulattoes mixing and associating with such slaves at any meeting-house or houses . . . or at any school or schools for teaching them reading or writing, either in the day or night, under whatsoever pretext, shall be deemed and considered an unlawful assembly; and any justice of a county . . . may issue his warrant . . . for the purpose of apprehending or dispersing such slaves, and to inflict corporal punishment on the offender or offenders, at the discretion of any justice of the peace, not exceeding twenty lashes.”

Imagine, 20 lashes for learning to read and write.

Still, some slaves, at great risk, did learn their letters. Some gained that skill with help from family members, or other slaves, sometimes even from sympathetic owners. Then they put their literacy to good use.

Some slaves who escaped from bondage wrote about their experiences. Those accounts helped fuel the abolitionist movement.

Now, 150 years after the Civil War, our nation’s capital, home to a significant number of African Americans, has too many residents who cannot read the lyrics of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the works of Frederick Douglass or the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Those residents are exactly where slave-masters would have wanted them to be. To think: Nearly 40 percent of D.C. students don’t graduate high school in four years.

What a perverse tribute to the emancipated blacks who came to this city after the Civil War, and, recognizing the value of education, helped create churches and start schools. Somewhere along the way, the emphasis on education seems to have disappeared.

I shudder to think what the men and women we honored last month would think of children who are squandering the opportunity to learn. Or what they would think of parents who allow their children to throw away their lives.

Our city’s most basic challenge is to teach children how to read and write and, equally important, how to use their literacy to gain control over their lives, foster their economic well-being and help lift up the community.

The District needs, above all else, a literate and well-informed citizenry. On that rests everything of any importance.

Even in chains, our ancestors knew what, along with freedom, was their greatest challenge.

When future generations look back on 2013, what will they think of us? What will they think of our actions — what we did or failed to do — to share the legacy of those who gave their all?

We can only hope our own record will be worth reading.

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.