At the root of every important problem we face, from mass incarceration to income inequality, is an education system influenced by our nation’s fraught history. Just as past generations fought to ensure that all Americans could enjoy the right to fully participate in our democracy, so must we rally tirelessly to advance an educational agenda that promotes equity and inclusion. With the gap between white academic achievement and that of students of color widening, now is the time to turn our attention to the basics, and few would argue with the fact that the single most essential aspect of a good education is literacy. Beyond reading and writing, literacy encompasses a whole host of skills that allow us to develop our potential and succeed in society, including critical thinking, self-discipline, curiosity, leadership, and motivation. Helping all our nation’s young people, especially those who live in low-income communities, improve their literacy skills should be a top priority.
Numerous programs are operating around the country to address the issue of underperformance in light of the shortcomings of our public school system. In Forever Free, Tracy Swinton Bailey charts the journey of one such program, her nonprofit Freedom Readers. From a childhood shaped by books to a career promoting the love of reading, she describes the hurdles and rewards of academia, teaching, mobilizing, and fundraising. Bailey outlines clearly and persuasively how Freedom Readers’ one-to-one tutoring model has worked in the rural South, and how it can work across the US. This book will inspire and empower readers, and should be placed in the hands of educators and organizers at every level.
|Other Press, LLC
|5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
My mother likes to tell the story of the day I was born. She tells me and whoever else will listen that I was just four pounds, so small that I could fit in the palm of my daddy’s hand. From the start, though, my sound and my size did not match up. When I came along, the seventh of seven children, my mother had been working in the hospital cafeteria for years. Many of the nurses on the maternity ward were friends, so they gave her a heads-up about her new bundle of joy: “If you go down to the nursery and look for her, don’t get scared. There’s nothing wrong, we just had to move her to the back corner of the room. You see, as soon as we get all the other babies settled and sleeping, she starts hollering and wakes them up. She’s about the tiniest and the noisiest thing we have had in here in a long time.”
This is when my mother gets a twinkle in her eye and delivers her punch line with a smile, “She’s not four pounds anymore, but she is surely still noisy.”
Whenever she tells that story to a group of strangers after I’ve given a public talk, or she’s read something I’ve written, I just put an arm around her shoulder and explain that I always had a lot to say.
Though I can’t fathom what I could have been trying to communicate to the babies in the hospital nursery, I can definitely identify with the feeling of wanting to be heard, struggling to raise my voice in a world where people like me are expected to be quiet. All my life I’ve been trying to figure out why the world wouldn’t want to hear me or receive me with open arms the way my daddy always did on Sunday mornings, when I was dressed for church and my hair was pressed into shiny curls. I grew up knowing that there was something of value pulsing through my veins. My parents constantly urged me to raise my voice, whether it was through making speeches at my church or singing in the choir with the other kids whose parents pushed them to learn what it meant to stand in the spotlight, to be heard.
I have wanted to tell stories, to tell my story, from the time I was in elementary school scribbling them down on half sheets of paper and sharing them with my friends on the school bus.
Yet I was constantly aware of the forces that wanted to silence me. They were heavy in the air, pushing down on me from some invisible loft, pushing in on me from every side. They were the voices of my teachers at school who carved out a time for talking and a time for listening, who valued compliance over intellect. They were the voices of the women in the community who looked at you from the corner of their eye when you chewed gum in church or laughed a little too loudly with the boys. It was the voice of my mother reminding me that I went to school to learn, not to teach the teacher: “Don’t you make that school have to call me on my job.”
I have walked that tightrope all of my life, struggling to figure out how to manage the stories that take shape behind my eyes in the black of the night, just before sleep creeps in, how to learn the rules of engagement, keeping the stories safe until the time was right to let them be known. The punishment for stepping out of line would be swift and harsh. Those who loved me wanted me to understand that a voice could be the most dangerous thing for a little Black girl in the seventies to have, in a world where little Black girls were problems. Make no mistake, we didn’t just cause problems. We were problems.
Our hair was a problem because it would not play by the rules on its own. It had to be ironed out with a straightening comb, heated to degrees hotter than the sun, and pulled through quickly on a Saturday afternoon so it could be presentable for Sunday school. “Hold your ears,” you’d be told by your mama or your auntie or your big sister when she was ready to pull out the shortest hairs on the edges, the ones most tightly curled and most defiant. “Hold your ears down,” they’d warn, and then they’d touch the back of your hand with the hot comb and you’d flinch.
We spent a lot of our time flinching, recoiling from words that would slice us and eyes that burned into us, while all we wanted was to just be who we were, little girls who loved marbles and jacks and double Dutch. Just little girls with dreams and beads that made clacking sounds at the ends of our cornrows when we walked. We wanted to be able to wear our T-shirts and short pants in the summer heat and run with abandon toward the ocean waves without wondering who was watching us and thinking we were “fast” simply because our bodies had curves and developed into the thickness passed down to us through generations. In my case, I tried to become smaller, quieter, so as not to be a problem. There were those in my circle brave enough to turn up the volume on their identities in resis- tance. They knew that their problem status would never be reassigned, so they fought it with their fists and with their voices, and they earned a certain kind of freedom outside the lines.
Like so many before me, I’ve always wanted to have it both ways. I’ve wanted to satisfy the world’s expectations while maintaining my voice and telling my story, but I have had to learn that one will always feed on the other. To have a voice is to be unique, to be shaped only by the will and determination to get the story out, to name your own reality and speak up on your own behalf. Pushing against herd mentality and destroying boxes built to contain you is at the heart of being fully human, of being free.
Out of that struggle and that balancing act, a new way of teaching, learning, and being together was formed. The Freedom Readers after school and summer literacy program, which has offered one-to-one tutoring for children living in low-income areas since 2010, is my attempt to provide a space where children can walk in the knowledge that they are not problems and that their voices matter. Young girls can find their image in the pages of a book, wild hair and all, and love her. Young boys can stand before a group and articulate hopes and dreams. Stories can be read, and aspirations can be safeguarded.
My mother was right about me from the day that I was born. I am still making noise, and I expect that the noisiness of my first day will also define my last. Because there is more to say on behalf of the children who will someday rule the world. There are more spaces to create where they are being heralded for their assets and not derided for their natural beauty. And I am not alone. As I was on my first day, I’m raising my voice to wake up everybody around me. Makes me wanna holler the way I did in the hospital nursery. It’s dangerous to sit back and watch children’s stories and their lights get snuffed out. This is why so many of us who love children are finding our own voices and reshaping the winds of change. Our stories are being told and retold, elevated to their proper places and received by the only ones who ever mattered, us. We are welcoming our own selves home.
Books have always been some of my most powerful and influential teachers. From the times my father found the energy to read to me after having worked long hours at the stainless-steel plant to the Wednesday nights my mother took me with her to Bible study in a little abandoned building that used to be a store where I bought Jolly Ranchers and Atomic Fireballs, words were wrapped around my shoulders like a patchwork quilt. They were a river of ideas and sounds on which I floated and into which I trailed my fingers. Losing myself within them gave me the freedom to stare into a distant, cloudless sky and dream. Like everything else I needed when I was a young child, my parents provided me with books, but I have no recollection of where they came from. I remember being surrounded by them at an early age. Maybe they had a subscription to a children’s book club or perhaps they picked them up from the store when they went shopping. Whatever the case, books were a big part of my childhood, and on many nights, I would brush my teeth, change into my nightgown, and slide under the covers to wait for Daddy to read with me, before we kneeled next to the bed to pray. My favorite book was The Monster at the End of This Book, the story of Grover, the furry, blue Sesame Street character, who kept warning us to stop turning pages, because of the monster he knew was waiting at the end. He tied ropes to the pages so we wouldn’t turn them. He built brick walls so we couldn’t reach the end. When we finally arrived at the end of the book, we (the readers and Grover himself) discovered that the monster was just him. That book made me laugh so hard I almost fell out of the bed every time I heard it. After we said prayers, and Daddy kissed my forehead and walked out of my bedroom, I’d open the book next to my Donald Duck night-light and look at the pictures until my eyes burned with sleep.
In addition to Grover, I fell in love with the Berenstain Bears and Dr. Seuss and a host of other colorful books with words that rhymed. I’d go on to discover The Boxcar Children and Ramona the Pest when I was in elementary school. By the time I reached middle school I had found Judy Blume and devoured every book she’d ever written. My sister Evelyn was a voracious reader and would let me borrow books from her well-stocked shelves, which contained a few Harlequin Romances and the entire Flowers in the Attic series by V. C. Andrews.
In high school I dragged myself toward the summer reading list I needed to complete to be ready for my advanced English classes in the fall. At that stage in my development, I preferred books that mirrored my reality, and I didn’t think my teachers would include anything that would interest me. To my surprise, I couldn’t get enough of Wuthering Heights and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Watership Down captured my imagination in a way I didn’t expect. They weren’t mirrors, but windows into another world, the temporary escape from real life that I needed. Then one summer, I took a long look at the choices on the list and chose Richard Wright’s Native Son, which introduced me to what some young Black boys in the city faced. It raised questions of racial inequality and economic despair. I can still remember Bigger Thomas’s fear rising from the pages of that paperback like smoke. With that book in my hand, I was completely at Wright’s mercy, and my love for reading was solidified.
These mentors, these books of mine, spoke in no uncertain terms about the value system that should guide a life worth living. From an early age, my moral compass was set toward considering the most vulnerable members of the community. Through a confluence of situations and explicit instruction, I internalized a lesson that would shape my entire life: how we treat those with the least power and influence will ultimately define us. My mentors, on the page and in real life, fervently taught that at the end of the day, it is not about protecting the rich and the elite or positioning them to gather more wealth. It is the opposite end of the income spectrum that needs our attention most. Turning our backs on the poor is not only callous but foolish, since we are all inextricably tied to one another as citizens of one nation, one planet. No man is an island, and the quality of life experienced by the poor is not so much a referendum on their lack of ambition as an indictment of the privileged and the comfortable.