Forever Free review: how education fails Black children – and how to put it right

Tracy Swinton Bailey has written an inspiring book about Freedom Readers and how to use literacy for good

As the school year begins, teachers and parents share common concerns about the education of young people, a concern greater than virus variants or mask mandates.

An entire school year was lost for millions of children, underscoring the limits of online teaching in the digital age. The fantasy of virtual school as the wave of the future has come face to face with a reality born of 18 months in quarantine.

But educators who work with children marginalized by race, class, disability and other vulnerabilities have long struggled with a corresponding reality: the failure to teach basic literacy to millions of kids. At this moment, 43 million US adults are functionally illiterate; two-thirds of fourth graders read below grade level. One Department of Justice study found that 75% of imprisoned people either had not finished high school or could barely read.

Tracy Swinton Bailey is a woman determined to shift those statistics. Inoculated by her parents with an early love for books and reading, Bailey knows how lucky she was not to fall victim to the elemental racism of low expectations and low budgets common in the rural south. The youngest of seven children of parents described as “the working poor”, she remembers that “as a child, I never gave much thought to the stereotypes that defined the way white America thought of us, but I realize now how much of my rearing was designed to prove them wrong.”

Critical to that upbringing was a life surrounded by church, family and books, including reference books from Johnson Publishing, publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines, that told stories of Black resistance, including the life of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Douglass wrote about the power to be found in education, specifically in literacy, remembering that when he was an enslaved young man the woman of the house was forbidden to teach him to read, on the grounds that literacy made enslaved Africans and their descendants unfit for servitude.

From the days of enslavement to the present moment, education has been synonymous with freedom, not only in the 19th-century writings of Douglass but with 20th-century Black thinkers such as bell hooks (Teaching to Transgress) through 21st-century “abolitionist” teachers like Bettina Love (We Want to Do More Than Survive).

Forever Free stands squarely in this tradition, but is written less as a theoretical treatise and more as a how-to manual, a memoir with literacy at its heart. Bailey’s prose does not bear the rhetorical flourish of her literary mentors. Instead, hers is a warm, practical, sometimes exasperated voice, a woman with too much work to do to take her eyes off the prize – and the prize is literacy for every child.

The nonprofit Bailey founded, Freedom Readers, was born after she gave a talk at a low-income housing project after breakfast sponsored by her predominately white evangelical church. Bailey had joined the church 10 years earlier, after learning of their stated commitment to “racial reconciliation”, a commitment that Bailey learned over time was woefully inadequate. One of the saddest sections of the book arises when Bailey attempts to engage in a dialogue with a white member.

When we tried to bring up [race] and devise a strategy for moving forward, we heard the words, ‘You care about race, and I care about Jesus.’

A local Black pastor, having heard Bailey’s talk, encouraged her to start an after-school program at the Darden Terrace housing project, to keep the kids out of trouble. It was that request, combined with Bailey’s admission into graduate school, that gave birth to the program that would become Freedom Readers.

“The mere idea of Freedom Readers,” she writes, “is a reimagining of what education can and should be for all children who have been pushed to the margins and viewed with suspicion.”

There would be a lot of heartache along the way: condescending local leaders, non-responsive housing authorities, skeptical students, well-meaning fellow congregants. But with the words of Douglass at her back and an ever-broadening worldview, Bailey will not be deterred.

Those expecting a linear story are destined for disappointment. Forever Free reads more like a series of circular narratives that converge onto a single point: education is designed to fail Black, poor and otherwise marginalized children. Bailey argues that we waste time debating strategies, rather than using simple principles backed by research: engage children about subjects that matter to them; train trusted adults to companion each young reader; give those young people choices as their skills develop; gain the support of an entire community – and watch children thrive.

Bailey’s voice is one of reasoned restraint. Nowhere is this more evident than in the retelling of the day she defended her dissertation. Though she only summarizes the points she made, the email that she writes to her dissertation committee in response to their initial F grade still smolders on the page. It’s no wonder they reversed their decision.

It’s this sense of resoluteness, born of a call to mission, that buoys Forever Free. Bailey’s sense of history and duty, her love of learning and commitment to children, radiate from every page. Her next big dream? To see a program like Freedom Readers in every community. Ever the teacher, she makes sure to include a roadmap in the book’s appendix, for readers to launch a Freedom Readers program on their own. As far as she’s concerned, we’ve already wasted too much time.

Rosemary Bray McNatt

The GuardianTramp

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