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The Racial Divide of Reading

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s piece on the frequency of reading among African-American populations isn’t exactly breaking new ground, but it is nice to have everything spelled out once more. A young black male has a better chance of getting teased for reading books instead of playing sports. Black children are less likely to have parents who read to them at an early age and expose them to books. Until recently, black adults were largely ignored by some book publishers who believed black people don’t read books. And many black people had not been reading books because there were fewer books on the market that appealed to them.

“The racial disparity in reading is a reflection of the differences in the kinds of backgrounds that children enjoy,” said Helen Faison, director of the Pittsburgh Teachers Institute at Chatham University. “We have to surround children early on with reading,” Faison said. “You have to create an environment where books are everywhere.” Authors like Brandon Massey notice the difference when men come up to get books signed for their wives because they won’t read something that “isn’t real.” But the lack of a book market for African-Americans pretty much died in the early 90s with the success of Terry McMillan and the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill case, which allowed the public to see a parade of intelligent African-American witnesses who graduated from Ivy League colleges testifying on national TV. “Publishers opened their eyes and saw a market they had totally avoided,” said literary agent Barbara Lowenstein.

John Thomas, superintendent of the Aliquippa School District, said the notion that black men who read books are less masculine is one that should be dispelled in the African-American community. “It’s just as powerful to carry a book as it is to carry a football or a basketball, because the power of knowledge is in the books,” he said. “If we prepare our bodies for the gridiron or the basketball court, to me it’s just as important to prepare your mind to survive in society. The body will soon wear out for athletic competition, but knowledge you have will carry you through life.”

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