Are We Punishing Black Males for Living in Book Deserts? - National Council of Teachers of English
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Are We Punishing Black Males for Living in Book Deserts?

This post is written by NCTE member Tiffany Flowers. 

Tiffany FlowersBlack males are unarguably the most vulnerable population within the Prek–Grade 12 school system. They are pushed out of schools with suspensions at a higher rate than any other population within the school. They are disproportionately more likely to find themselves labeled and in special education. Black males typically have the lowest reading and writing scores of all ethnic and gender groups. Additionally, they are more likely to drop out of school without earning a G.E.D. or high school diploma. They are also incarcerated at a higher rate than their peers in their teens and early adult years. Further, they are less likely to attend post-secondary learning experiences than their peers.

It should be no surprise to anyone to see many educators pursuing drastic reforms and establishing single-sex schools as an oasis in urban communities to counteract these effects. All of these initiatives are great. However, it is up to educators to come up with solutions for the thousands of Black males within urban public schools who do not have access to these initiatives. It is imperative that we look beyond mere teaching practices and begin to make real and systematic change concerning our advocacy efforts as they relate to the communities in which many Black males live. We need system wide changes in school and community culture to make learning relevant. Too often, we are talking about individual teacher buy-in of culturally-relevant approaches.

What I am suggesting is that we consider removing the pressure and accountability from teachers and parents and focus more on advocacy and building partnerships for more literate communities. It really was not that long ago that teachers and parents were partners in the literacy process of children. Have accountability and rampant testing removed this culture from schools and communities?

Many Black males live in communities where most Black owned bookstores with specialty titles have closed down. They are less likely to find larger chain or Indie bookstores within a close distance of their communities. Most urban residents do not have open libraries near their homes. They also do not have access to book festivals, large or small.

In the school community, the “book deserts” can be even worse. According to research, there is one book on average per eleven students. Additionally, school-level literacy policies such as checking out one book per week instead of 2–3 books per day limits student access and reduces their opportunities to develop their vocabularies and read across genres. Ironically, literacy may not be the focus or specialty area of the school personnel who run the school, which can lead to lopsided decision making as school leaders lean toward “safe practices” of buying “teacher-proof” materials instead of using funds to inundate the school with books, magazines, and nonfiction audio, print, and electronic materials.

Finally, Black males in urban settings are more likely to find themselves in financially-strapped schools where the instructional leadership has decided to eliminate Reading Recovery services and/or the Reading specialist. The teachers in the school may not have access to professional learning communities or workshops on motivating children to read. The students in these struggling schools, including Black males are less likely to have access to literary field trips and literacy experiences such as plays, poetry slams, community library visits, author visits, and drama/acting clubs.

As literacy professionals, we know all of these issues exist from year to year. However, as report cards roll around every year, Black males are made to pay for this inequality with comments related to grit. They are made to pay with frustration about their lack of progress expressed by teachers, parents, resource personnel, and administrators. They are made to pay with behavior referrals as pressured teachers lose patience. They are made to pay when school administrators eliminate recess or when schools limit recess to 20 minutes instead of a full hour. They are made to pay by being forced to do the most uninspiring and rote tasks as a substitute for authentic literacy experiences.

Eliminating authentic literacy experiences eliminates the purposes and motivation for why Black boys read. As literacy professionals, we know this to be true. Yet Black males pay for this in a tangible and emotional way every year. The emotional toll that many Black males feel in regard to failing at literacy is real and should not be ignored.

The real issues are inequality and the fact that many Black males live in book deserts. Until we seek to change these situations through advocacy, the persistent problem of Black males having little access to literacy and more access to special services will continue. The issue of Black males having access to uninspired, rote memory literacy experiences will continue until they get bored, are pushed out of school through suspensions, and end up on the street. In urban communities where there is little access to employment and where mentoring comes from  gangs and drug dealers willing to teach Black males how to survive on the streets, the school-community-prison pipeline is primed. As literacy professionals, it is imperative we begin to change this reality through advocacy efforts which are community wide, district wide, school wide, as well as in local classrooms.

It is time we take a stand to reclaim the authentic literacy which inspires and motivates Black males to become literate. Black males need access to books which reflect their experiences and motivation in the form of purposeful and leisure reading. As professionals, we know leisure reading and the freedom to exercise choice in reading are what inspire children to read when no one is looking. These opportunities can also inspire Black males to read and recite their favorite poems and make up their own.

Equally important in providing inspiration are:

  • the social justice framework, which is built on news stories, essays, speeches, and biographies about real community issues that need to change.
  • the debates and town hall meetings where Black males can use critical thinking and discuss and espouse why or why not they find plausible storylines with topics such as police brutality, sports, friendship, family issues, and tragedies.
  • the ethnic studies approach in which Black males learn about Black history narratives and events, which allows them to develop a passion for learning who they are in relation to the greater world.

There are so many possibilities and ways to inspire Black males to read instead of punishing them for living in communities which lack equity. As we embark on a new school year, we must do so with the idea that we have the power to change this reality. Book deserts in urban communities can be eliminated as easily as they were made in the first place. We must do our part as literacy professionals to forge community partnerships to change the reality of book deserts in urban communities, or Black males will continue to be treated as both victims and perpetrators of their own reality, and punished for being both.

Tiffany A. Flowers is an Assistant Professor of Education at Perimeter College at Georgia State University. She is an author, professor, and literacy advocate. Her research interests include African American literacy development, the scholarship of teaching and learning, literature, and traditional literacy. You can contact her at