Books like me

Will black students read better if they read stories by black authors? Students show higher reading comprehension if they read stories that are “culturally relevant,” says a study. And schools now have access to much more literature by non-white authors.

Michael Lopez predicts “relevance” will backfire.

Let me make a prediction here: the more we segregate education, the more we implicitly tell “black” kids that they should only be getting excited about “relevant” books, the more we’re going to intellectually ghettoize said children, and the less they will be able to achieve. Reading is supposed to expand — not reinforce — your horizons.

I’ve seen working-class Mexican-American students enthralled by Harry Potter’s adventures. They also like to read about Mexican-Americans, of course. But the ones who lack basic reading skills don’t enjoy reading anything.

Update: In Rhode Island, disadvantaged students are turned on to reading dead white males like Shakespeare through drama, writes Samuel Freedman in the New York Times.


When Kurt Wootton was fresh out of graduate school and brimming with idealism, he took a job here teaching English at Hope High School. He was white, his students were black, and so he assumed the best way to reach them was through relevancy. He assigned Richard Wright’s autobiography, “Black Boy,” and he put on jazz CD’s by John Coltrane.

Few pupils, as it turned out, saw many parallels between their lives and young Wright’s. After Coltrane blew his last note, one boy asked, “Why don’t you play some of our music?” Hope High, so improbably named, recorded a dropout rate in the vicinity of 50 percent.

Almost a decade later, Mr. Wootton remains every bit as convinced of education’s power to transform stunted lives. He has changed his tool of choice, however, from a mirror in which students see only reflections of themselves to a window that opens onto the rest of the world. The program he devised and directs, ArtsLit, teaches literacy to children in some of Rhode Island’s most troubled schools though performances of texts, many of them classics of the Western literary canon.

“Mr. Wootton sees high culture not as the oppressor of the lowly but as an agent of their liberation,” writes Freedman.

About Joanne


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    The intellectual ghettoization of black kids only counts as a “backfire” if it isn’t the desired outcome.

    You don’t think grownups are this stupid, do you?

  2. “Students show higher reading comprehension if they read stories that are ‘culturally relevant,’ says a study.”

    I was initially inclined to agree, because if someone tries to read a book about some totally alien culture (real, fantasy, or SF), one will find it hard to understand because the worldview is so different from one’s own, one has to keep track of foreign names and terms, etc.

    But that’s probably not applicable here. If a black American child reads a book by a non-black American or Canadian author, s/he is not entering a wholly foreign universe. OTOH, if a black child reads a book by an African author, the comprehension problems I just mentioned might come up.

    And even if we keep African cultures out of the picture, the range of experience labelled “black” in America is still vast. I don’t think a middle-class black kid is necessarily going to fully relate to a book about black kids in the ghetto (or vice versa).

    BTW, I am of Japanese heritage and I don’t think I actually read a book with Asian-American characters until my mid-teens. I can’t say that I felt deprived. Moreover, to this day I can’t say that I relate better to books by Asian-American authors; sharing a race or even a culture is not enough.

  3. Mad Scientist says:


    Yes, adults are that stupid.

  4. Mark Odell says:

    I believe the expression you’re looking for is “useful idiots”.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    You mean this isn’t a deliberate attempt to ruin black kids?

  6. I realize I’m the polar opposite of the group in question here (I’m a white female in her 30s who loves to read) but I’d far rather read a book about a time or place or culture different from my own, than slog through “chick lit” or something that’s just the boring mundanities of life written down. (I also tend to be less interested in “modern” family stories for similar reasons).

    If the books work as a “hook” to get kids reading, fine. But if they are the ONLY reading kids are exposed to, I’m not sure how beneficial they are.

  7. Fiction should prepare a child/person to live in many worlds, not just his own ghetto. Creating a segregated mental world for african american children is just a continuation of the neo-segregation occurring in the physical world.

    All black schools, black dormitories on campus, black eating facilities on campus, black recreational facilities on campus, entire departments of universities dedicated to nothing but “blackness.” Total black immersion in black resentment and black privilege. As if there is no need to learn to deal with the larger world.

    A mind is a terrible thing to close.

  8. Bill Bennett, commenting on a similar argument, noted that kids love to learn about dinosaurs and space travel, neither found in the average neighborhood. And you could add to that pair, fairy tales.

  9. I just love the comment about kids reading from ‘dead white males’.


  1. Hube's Cube says:

    Education tid-bits

    Joanne Jacobs posts about a study that shows “higher reading comprehension if [black students] read stories that are ‘culturally relevant.”‘ Highered Intelligence’s Michael Lopez thinks the idea is silly: The story is not-so-subtly asserting that there…