Monday, September 25, 2006

A Life of Battling Illiteracy on the Mississippi Delta

Saturday's "Column One" article at the Los Angeles Times covered Ronnie Wise and his career as a librarian in Bolivar County, Mississipi, the nation's poorest state, with the lowest levels of literacy in the U.S.

Bolivar County' s illiteracy rate is 41 percent (40,000 residents can't read), and Wise, as the Director of Libraries, helped turn around the county's literacy programs, raising money and convincing local authorities to fund library improvements. Wise was able to expand one library location by converting an unused train depot into the library system's flagship branch (for the article's photo gallery slide show,
click here).

This is a lengthy article, but worth a good read. Wise opted for early retirement, and much of the piece is an effort to explain how Wise -- whose whole identity for three decades was wrapped up in improving the lives of the county's illiterate residents -- could walk away from his job, with apparently little emotion:

Maybe it's all too much for one librarian. Maybe Wise is retiring simply because he's overwhelmed, because even the mythic library of ancient Alexandria, said to hold a copy of every book in the world, might not be adequate to solve the problems of Bolivar County.

One-third white, two-thirds black, Bolivar County has a long history of ignorance and hate, made doubly tragic by its parallel history of genius and hope. This is where freed slaves — including Isaiah Montgomery, son of a favored slave of Jefferson Davis' family, who was granted access to the Davis plantation library — founded a landmark community just for blacks. This is where Freedom Riders came in droves during the civil rights era, registering voters and laying the groundwork for all kinds of change, including Freedom Schools, makeshift classrooms where African Americans could finally learn.

This is where the blues was born, and raised. Bolivar County is to blues what Philadelphia is to democracy. The founding fathers — W.C. Handy, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton — drank and caroused all over this county, and not 10 minutes from the Depot sits a hallowed farm, Dockery Plantation, where musicians from throughout the South came to blend moans and chants and spirituals, all the disparate sounds of an enslaved culture, into one hauntingly American plaint.

Then they all hopped a fast train out.

Launching a literacy crusade from a train depot was an act rich in meaning and irony, one that spoke to the historical contradictions of the Delta. A train whistle is evocative everywhere, but in the Delta that high lonesome note goes straight to the heart, because the Delta wasn't livable, or leave-able, until the first tracks were laid down.

Much of the American frontier was at least passable by foot or wagon — but the Delta remained remote as the moon until the late 1800s. Then, like sunflowers along the epic river that forms Bolivar County's western border, towns sprang to life along the route of the Yazoo-Mississippi Valley. They configured their streets, even their identities, around their depots. Just as suddenly, however, those same towns lost their vitality, as the very trains that tamed the Delta began taking people away — to Chicago, to New Orleans, to war. Thus, the train was a bringer of both excitement and exodus, of progress and pain. And right there, on the old weed-choked tracks, Wise built a library that brought the same things, to himself as much as anyone.

He doesn't remember when it became more pain than progress, when he realized that for every person who walks into a library, who signs up with a tutor or earns a graduate equivalency diploma, hundreds more don't come, or don't stay. Like so many Delta librarians and educators, he felt overmatched one day, powerless against the freight train of history.

The source of illiteracy is slavery, he says, plain and simple: Before the Civil War, Bolivar County had more slaveholding plantations than any county in the South. Slavery begat illiteracy, he argues, illiteracy perpetuates economic slavery, and the cycle simply remains unbroken.

Should anyone disagree with his view of history, he gets very cranky.
Read the whole thing. It's hard to imagine a life without reading (at least for my existence), but it is easy to see the consequences of being unable to read.

Many of my students -- and a large number of those at my college and in the community college system -- are illiterate. Some African-American students I've taught have come to Southern California from the American South, and have told me that blacks often faced incredible obstacles to getting an education at the system level. It's a difficult issue to address in a university-level political science course -- for there's no relaxation of standards in my courses -- but fortunately the college has tremendous resouces for remediation.

At the family level, some scholars have argued -- as Wise implies in the article -- that the inability to read is just passed down through generations of the black family. We talk so much about equal opportunity in the U.S. that we forget how recent some of the civil rights advancements are. I am not discounting the existence of an anti-intellectual black culture (with its cult of victimology), though an appreciation of from where the black family has come is helpful in addressing the contemporary nature of black educational underachievement.

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