Apr. 9, 2013

Clearing my mind!

The picture - circa mid-1950's is of my cousins and me taken at "The Big House" - our grandparents home!  Only one of us still lives in Johnstown, PA, but all of us finished high school and most of us went on to college because that was the expectation our family set for us!


A "Wandering Mind" is hard to control!

I have a newfound appreciation for writers: I learned the hard way that when you write about something you’re passionate about, it’s easy to stick to the subject but if you’re not really passionate or if you haven’t fully thought out where you intend to go with it, it’s very hard to stay focused on one subject.  Somehow unrelated subjects seem to just show up on the paper!  When you go back and read what you’ve written – the natural reaction is to try to link the subjects – but believe me, that only makes it worse! 


Wonder why so many of us started or joined a bookclub! 

Did you start or join a book club as the result of television and the Oprah Book Club started in 1996 or the reawakening of interest in black literature spurred by Terri McMillan and “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” in 1998? I don’t remember whether either influenced me when I founded, The Reading Divas Book Club in August 1998. I was just a busy wife, mother, and sales professional who wanted to create an oasis where I could interact with like-minded sister-friends away from our usual routine of work and home.


But credit should be given when deserved - and noone can deny that these two talented Black women - giants in their own right - certainly brought about a renaissance in the Black literary community and we continue to reap the benefits!


A Long History of Good Works 

I grew up in Johnstown, PA were there was an African American women’s club called “The E. L. Davis Club”.  I never knew who E. L. Davis was but I remember my siblings and I each received a small stipend from the club when we graduated from high school.  It was like a rite of passage - if you were Black and lived in Johnstown you would receive that coveted envelope upon graduation – my eldest brother received it in 1945 and I, the youngest, received mine in 1965.  These club members were considered the pillars of our small town society – role models who encouraged us to comport ourselves as ladies and further our education.  I’m sure many of you have not before heard or used the word “comport”, which means to conduct one’s self or behave, but it is the word that best describes the attitude of the women of that day.

If I were still living in Johnstown, I certainly would have joined the E. L. Davis Club because, growing up I was in awe of how they bonded together to do good works. And yes, the club still thrives today and the members continue to fundraise and to give stipends to new graduates and scholarships to worthy college-bound students – something that many book clubs also do.


Before Book Clubs

I recently came across a book titled “Forgotten Readers – Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies” by Elizabeth McHenry, an Assistant Professor of English at New York University.  I was so impressed by the information in this book that I ordered it in both print and Ereader format.  I initially began reading it on my Kindle, but soon realized I needed to hold it and mark passages in order to really “breath in” the history it brought to life.  This is not a book I would recommend as a book club read, but I would recommend it to individuals who want to learn more about the history of literary clubs.


 “Forgotten Readers” is a vibrant history of African American literacy, literary associations and book clubs. Ms. McHenry details how black literary societies developed, their relationship to the black press, and the ways that African American women’s clubs – which flourished during the 1820 and 30’s – encouraged literary activity. A passage in the book reads in part “African American women found literary societies to be especially important and popular resources.  ….. women’s societies were more likely to assemble in small groups in member’s homes”  - not much different from the book clubs today.


U.S. Literacy Statistics

In 2011, the US Department of Education reported that: 

  • 14% or 32 million U.S. adults CANNOT READ
  • 63% of prison inmates CANNOT READ
  • 21% of U.S. adults read below a fifth grade level.

Even more disturbing, the National Commission of Literacy also reported in 2012 that:

  • The U. S. is the only country (out of 30 free-market countries) where the current generation is less well educated than the previous one;
  • Every year, one of three young adults drops out of school;
  • Low parent learning affects children - one in five children lives in poverty and that the parents and caregivers in these households lack the education and skills to earn a family-sustaining wage. 


These statistics sadden but don't suprise me!  

I grew up in era when many of the adults - my parents included - weren’t able to go further than the sixth or seventh grade in school, usually because they had to go to work to help support their family or they married and started families of their own.  My parents - both the eldest in their families - married when he was 21 and she was 15. 


As a youngster, I lived several doors from a Pentecostal church whose minister, the Elder Henry Slade, a church and community leader, could neither read nor write. He was functionally illiterate – he could sign his name, but could not read what he signed.


On Sunday morning before he preached, Elder Slade would call upon someone from the congregation to read the text for him.  Being a child, I just thought it was the way things were done - until he approached my oldest brother, then a high school student, to teach him.   Elder Slade didn't live in an era when all citizens were guaranteed - at minimum - a high school education.  What has gone wrong in our communities that we can no longer say "this generation will do better than their parents"? 


Book clubs can help to change these statistics by planting the seeds of reading everywhere we go. We CAN and DO make a difference!