As Casey noted, much has been written about how to improve literacy rates among children and teens of color, and a good deal of this research focuses on the choice of texts. Research has stressed the importance of providing children and adolescent readers with texts that reflect their personal experiences and accurately portray characters like themselves and their families, friends, and peers.
In a recent book called Reading for Their Life, Alfred Tatum took the idea of culturally relevant texts a step further, arguing that African American adolescent males need exposure to texts that not only contain characters who look, act, and think as they do, but also encourage and empower these young people to take action in their own lives and in the lives of others around them. Tatum calls such writing enabling texts, and his argument for using enabling young adult and adult texts with Black adolescent males applies to male and female Black youth of all ages.
Today, there are numerous picture books and middle-grade novels that allow Black youth to explore and view concepts, themes, and issues from multiple perspectives and in relation to their multiple identities. If teachers and librarians wait until middle school or high school to connect Black youth with meaningful and engaging texts, they may be missing opportunities that are difficult to recapture. The love of reading and writing needs to be cultivated early, and youth, even in the elementary grades, need to begin to understand the role that literacy plays in shaping their life outcomes. In this segment, we will identify the characteristics of enabling texts and discuss how librarians might use such texts in their work with Black youth.
Most of you are probably already aware of the small number of books featuring African American characters that are published each year. Compounding this problem is the fact that many of the books featuring Black characters that are published serve mainly to reinforce the stereotypes of Black communities.
In contrast to books that present Black youth as one-dimensional stereotypes, enabling texts recognize, honor, and nurture multiple identities—for example, academic, cultural, religious, gendered, and national. They avoid caricatures, especially race-based caricatures such as the Black basketball player, the Asian nerd, or the Hispanic girl with an attitude.
They also provide a modern awareness of the real world by honestly portraying characters, issues, problems and environments that Black youth might encounter in the real world. It’s important to note that real is a relative term—what each reader finds realistic will vary depending on that person’s experience. Some Black readers will identify with a character who needs to check his clothing for gang signs before leaving his home each morning, but others will identify with a character from a middle class family who is choosing a college. Historical texts can also meet this criteria: while seemingly not at all modern, a work such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass can still offer truths that resonate with Black youth today.
Enabling texts promote a healthy psyche by portraying characters who practice self-reflection, leading readers to look within and define themselves. In addition, enabling texts also demonstrate resiliency by featuring characters who are self-reliant problem-solvers. They often include a mentor or role model character.
Enabling texts focus on the collective struggles of African Americans. The African American community has faced and continues to face a variety of obstacles along the path to equity. Enabling texts neither ignore these struggles nor paint African Americans as merely victims of history. Instead, enabling texts challenge African American youth to critically examine the challenges that they face, whether those challenges are academic, social, economic, or personal.
In doing this, enabling texts serve as a road map for being, doing, thinking, and acting and affirm the power of both the individual and the collective to improve one’s life. Finally, they are interesting and provocative, providing positive reinforcement of the characteristics of strong writing.
While traditional print resources are most often identified as enabling texts, non-traditional texts such as hip-hop lyrics, speech transcripts, and social media posts can also meet the benchmarks of enabling texts.
In addition to simply putting enabling texts into the hands of Black youth at every opportunity, librarians can also use these texts to engage Black children and teens in dialogue and action about issues and concepts that matter. Without the chance to discuss and respond to their reading, Black youth cannot gain the full benefit of enabling texts. Alfred Tatum has created a framework for mediating enabling texts with Black youth, and we encourage you to read his book for more information about that.
In our book, we have included a list of enabling texts for children and teens, as well as information about independent publishers who are committed to producing these texts. We encourage you to evaluate your library collection and the ways in which you are mediating texts with the Black youth you serve.
In the next segment, we will synthesize the first half of this professional development workshop and describe the characteristics of effective library services for Black youth.
Tatum, Alfred W. Reading for Their Life: (Re)building the Textual Lineages of African American Adolescent Males. Heinemann Educational Books, 2009.
Tatum, Alfred W. Fearless Voices: Engaging a New Generation of African American Adolescent Male Writers. Scholastic, 2013.