- The Washington Times - Friday, October 20, 2000

"It creates a lot of problems getting a job, maintaining a relationship you don't want your girlfriend to know you can't read," says David Clemmons, pulling me away mentally from the St. Regis Hotel where he, I and others have gathered for the Village Foundation's National Literacy Campaign Summit. Suddenly, I am on the streets of Washington's broken communities, examining adults I encounter for any telltale signs of their nonreading status. I search for the prison wall that restricts them, leaving them caught without windows, without visions, without a picture of life's possibilities. Illiteracy is a devastating terrain, escaped by sheer determination.
See for yourself: Mr. Clemmons was 15 when he first came to Washington from South Carolina; his mother sent him to live with an older brother. Things went awry when Mr. Clemmons started running with the wrong crowd. He was sent back to South Carolina only to return to the District in 1970. After working for years as an apprentice, in 1974 he started his own carpet-installation business. His wife served as his bookkeeper and official reader. When the marriage ended, his business collapsed. He found a job with a furniture company. But employment there ended after an on-the-job accident, which proved a mixed blessing. In 1997, at 47, Mr. Clemmons realized he could no longer conceal his greatest handicap, using friends and relatives as his crutch. He went to the Washington Literacy Council for help.
Frankie Clarke, 56, a professional caterer, didn't graduate from high school until he was 21 years old. Randolph Hinton frequently had to stay out of school to work on the farm; when he returned from those absences, he couldn't gain the teacher's favor. At 14, he dropped out. Seeing a literacy poster on a transit bus, he decided at age 41 to learn to read. Rayve Washington, diagnosed with dyslexia, went through school without learning to read. When he worked at a restaurant, he used the pictures on cans to tell him what was inside; with frozen foods he peered inside the packages. When he became a cook, he took the menu home and his wife helped him memorize it. Finally, in 1990, he went to the Adult Skills Program.
Curtis Aikens, the host of the cable food show, "Pick Of The Day," and author of four books, says he, too, played "literacy charade": He memorized everything he heard in his high school class. On tests, he scribbled illegible answers and when the teachers asked him to explain, he simply repeated what he had memorized. This game got Mr. Aikens through high school and Southern University. He learned to speak correctly by watching television. One day, he saw an ad for the Marin County Free Library Literacy program. At age 26, he finally learned to read.
"I made my first million before I was 21 years old," Mr. Aikens says, "and lost it all by the time I was 24; I couldn't read."
I cannot fathom a life without the printed word; it helped me escape the realities of public housing and latchkey living in New Orleans. I sculpted dreams from words and learned to breathe life into those reveries. If I had not learned to read as a child, I surely would have been driven to even greater destruction than I experienced. I know now how lucky I was; how lucky I am.
Bobby William Austin, founder and chief operating officer of the Village Foundation, reports that nearly 40 percent of African-American adults fall in the lowest "prose" literacy level, which measures a person's ability to understand printed information; 21 percent of the entire adult population falls within this category. But he quickly asserts that literacy doesn't just mean someone's ability to read basic text.
"When we speak of literacy, we're really talking about a person's ability to operate adequately in society," Mr. Austin continues. "Unfortunately, far too many young black men are not meeting that standard and are becoming marginalized as a result."
The Village Foundation, in partnership with the U.S. Labor Department; B&C; Associates, headed by Robert Brown; and the Chicago Leadership Institute, founded and chaired by Stedman Graham; has launched a major initiative to drive down the number of nonreading adults and children in this country. Already the group has launched a "Books For Boys" reading program that includes participation by such well-known African-American male writers as Walter Mosley, Michael Cottman, David Levering-Lewis and John Edgar Wideman. The foundation also expects to tap into other national literacy efforts while instigating greater involvement of faith-based organizations.
Most critical to the national campaign and its success will be expanding the narrow definition of literacy in a technology-based society. "We have been wrestling with the problem since the Village Foundation was founded, and we find the standard definition to be short of reality," adds Mr. Austin.
But while the rate of illiteracy is disproportionately high among African-Americans, statistics prove it is not just a black problem. A survey of student test scores all around the country, including those at suburban schools, underscores the message. "Literacy knows no boundaries," asserts Mr. Aikens. "It is the one problem as Americans we can all unite around."
The Village Foundation seems a good place to begin to join hands.

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