Program underscores the importance of literacy

by Rebecca Teale

Elaine Richardson’s desk is piled high with papers and her computer sits in constant e-mail mode. The voice-mail light on her phone is blinking and students keep coming in.
She runs her painted nails through her multi-braided hair, and sighs. “Next month,” she says, “it will all be worth it.”
Richardson is regional coordinator for the University’s participation in the African-American Read-In, a nationwide reading time set aside to promote literacy and the literature of African-Americans.
“It amazes me that the only African-Americans people know of are Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X and Oprah,” said Ezra Hyland, professor of African-American Literature and General College students services advisor. “We have to get beyond the idea that accomplishments by African-Americans are a new thing.”
Organizers of the African-American Read-In are celebrating the event’s ninth year as a national reading chain. By the year 2000, coordinators want it to become an unofficial kick-off to Black History Month.
But both Richardson and Hyland insist the Read-In is important to all people — not just African-Americans.
“It’s an issue of respect,” Hyland said. “It corrects the record. We live in a universal world, and we need things like this to broaden ourselves.”
Archie Givens Jr., whose late father’s namesake is the University’s Givens Collection — one of the oldest collections of books by African-Americans — emphasized the event’s necessity. He said the Read-In is so important he decided to pay for buses to transport elementary through high school-age youth to the event.
“Reading is so essential for life,” Givens said. “For students to see us halt everything to read shows what a fundamental value reading is.”
The University’s read-in will feature readings of African-American literature by educators, students and community members. It will be held at 3 p.m. Feb. 1 at the Humphrey Center.
Nationally known performance poet Mary Weems will present original poetry celebrating the African-American’s contribution to literature.
“We are all part of the world and the time is past when we could segregate ourselves,” Weems said. “It’s important for us to understand each other.”
Despite the event’s symbolic overtones, its main purpose is encouraging African-American youth to read.
Richardson attributes low literacy rates among African-American students to a long history of oppression.
During slavery, it was against the law for African-Americans to learn to read or write. This law, Richardson said, created a feeling among African-Americans that reading was not for them.
“The Read-In gives youngsters permission to read,” Richardson said. “It helps African-American students learn something about their cultural heritage, something all children want to learn.”
As part of the local read-in students from General College, North High School and St. Paul Central High School were asked to submit an essay, rap, poem or short story. All were supposed to center around the theme “What makes literature black?” Awards will be given out at the read-in.