African American Literacy in Southern Mississippi: A Service-Learning Study

The composition of this project provides a reflective analysis of an experienced-based service-learning case in the larger Hattiesburg area in Southern Mississippi. This case study — within the field of service-learning — considers the scholarship and history of literacy, and lack thereof, in the African American community as the basis of the theoretical framework. Much like the traditional Ghanaian concept of Sankofa, this project aims to do just that, recognize our past to build for a better future (Asante and Mazama 2007).

A belief much followed in the field of service-learning due to its reflective nature and awareness of the past. The project is the key part of a Black Studies course at the University of Southern Mississippi, the Service-Learning class; a requirement for the comprehensive Black Studies minor offered here at the university. The collaborative partnership for the service-learning experience was drawn between the university and its Center for Black Studies, with the Aldersgate Mission. This partnership is developed in hopes of aid their mission’s needs, establish true service from the students’ side, and revert back to the classroom to reflect on the service provided and relating it to the appropriate scholarship.

The Aldersgate Mission is an after-school program located in an inner-city neighborhood of Hattiesburg, Mississippi — an area that is predominantly African American. The mission has its own building with several classrooms, meeting rooms, and a large playground. Aldersgate services any child K-12 free of cost. The building is adjacent to the Briarfield section 8 housing community where most of the children reside. The mission is supported and funded by the Main Street United Methodist Church with the goal of improving students’ school performance, development of self through gaining appropriate social skills and adequate behavior, and bettering the children’s ultimate outcome when graduating from Aldersgate. In this study, we see an array of the sociohistorical struggles of literacy in the African American community still represented at our site, in the South of Mississippi, and evaluate how these factors affect the Aldersgate Mission.

Goals and Objectives

To address the importance of African American literacy I developed some preconceived notions of an array of self-imposed goals and objectives as I headed into my volunteer experience at Aldersgate. My first goal was to be able to connect with the students. It is necessary to be able to relate in some form to the student to be able to learn about their struggles. I predicted that I may be not able to relate to much but I could still aim to gain their respect and provide them with the need they require. Ultimately, I would hope to be able to serve as a role model that a child would desire to look up to regardless of their future dreams. The second objective is our key concern — aiding in their literacy. I assumed I would face a lot of lack of motivation for school work from the side of the students. I wanted to be able to reshape their outlook on schooling and education. As a subset of gauging their literacy, I recognize that working with boys between fifth and tenth grade, they will be gaining a lot of vocabulary exponentially in a short period of time. Without the right teaching, these children would most likely struggle to spell and read these words; a concern that Rev. Dixon, Aldersgate’s director, had shared with us, volunteers. My third and last main objective was to provide these students with a positive and happy time during the hours they get to spend at Aldersgate. Two hours a day of positivity, growth, and a breather from their routine problems can be essential in the development of children. Providing a happy time would mean being able to see the world through a broader lens for example by learning about more opportunities in their future than the ones their community tells them they are restricted to.

Literature Review

The thematic focus of our project is to address the level of literacy in the African American community, especially it’s brand of education in the South. A scholar that focuses on African American literacy and U.S. education overall is Dr. James D. Anderson from the University of Illinois. The prominent education scholar depicts the history of the struggles in the education of the African American community in his outstanding book “The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935”. In his book, he describes the repression of literacy of the enslaved Africans since the beginning of the nineteenth century criminalizing in the South for the enslaved to learn to read or write. This was just the beginning of black disenfranchisement in the 19th century, as southern law consolidated this kind of oppression for decades ahead that affected educational development of African Americans dramatically (Anderson 1988). According to Anderson, learning to read or write had always been desired by ex-slaves and they held literacy to a high esteem. When we hope to draw a distinction in differentiating the literacy in the African American community from the said literacy in the American South specifically it is directly related to its history of slavery and black disenfranchisement. While slavery and other forms of oppression of the newly African Americans took place not in the South exclusively we must remember that they preconceived notion from Northerners was that the South’s “slave regime was so brutal and dehumanizing that blacks were little more than uncivilized victims who needed to be taught the values and rules of civil society” (Anderson 1988). Anderson reminds us of just how many grassroots educational initiatives African Americans created — often clandestinely — in order to attain literacy. When we consider the history behind the struggle for gaining literacy we begin to recognize the importance of it to the African American community and its emancipatory nature.

Another education scholar that examines African American literacy in her scholarship is Dr. Violet Harris. In her review “African-American Conceptions of Literacy,” Harris details how African Americans have for centuries held education to the highest of esteems. Access to literacy was not gained by coincidence but through a long struggle that began by disproving that African Americans were incapable of attaining education (Harris 1992). When focusing on the conceptions of literacy, Harris explains that for African Americans literacy meant “more than the ability to read and write at some specific grade level.” The use of the word literacy, according to her, had been used and thought of as interchangeable with education and schooling because it meant being able to navigate white spaces. To African Americans literacy meant the “indication of the efforts of a marginalized group that attempted to participate in all cultural institutions through the attainment of literacy” (Harris 1992). Now there is “a new sense of urgency [since] a significant number of African-American youth are uneducated” (Harris 1992) to which the Aldersgate Mission seems to mirror this concern.

Other remarks of relevance to the study literacy are not only of historic struggle. Scribner (1984), for example, believes that “problems of poverty and political powerlessness are [] inseparably intertwined with problems of access to knowledge and levels of literacy skills.” For minorities that have been disenfranchised — such as African Americans — literacy carries a meaning of power. Scribner describes how literacy can have different meanings when we take into account the socio-historical background of the society being studied. In other words, we see literacy taking on “multiple meanings and varieties [that allow for] a diversity of educational approaches, informal and community-based as well as formal and school-based” (Scribner 1984). This spectrum has space for gaining literacy outside the classroom in community-based initiatives such as the one of our project. Ultimately we need adequate race-conscious guidance for literacy to develop appropriately in our target population (Rogers and Mosley 2006).

A key relationship developed in the scholarship is one of literacy and identity. A student’s identity is important for their instructors and caretakers to learn about in order to help the student develop. Dr. Elizabeth Moje and her colleagues report in their research the relationship between identity shaping one’s view of literacy by using five different metaphors to convey their findings. Understanding literacy through identity forces us to recognize student’s cognitive abilities instead of falling back to the traditional skill-based view of literacy (Moje et al. 2009), that often leads minority groups to vocational opportunities disproportionately. Identity in literacy settings can also be divisive. For example, “identity labels can be used to stereotype” (Moje et al. 2009), such as an at-risk student, a low performer, the troublemaker, and so forth. Using identity consciousness to our benefit should not turn into a labeling case where a student may be involved in a self-fulfilling prophecy to the label they have been given. Additionally, identities “are always dependent on the context in which the[y] are made” (Moje et al. 2009). It is apparent how important it is for the setting of literacy to be adequate for identities to develop. The relevance of setting is important due to our field site being located in a poverty-stricken community where identity will ultimately be shaped differently than elsewhere. Dr. Tanya Mandishona also considers setting as being relevant in how identity is reshaped in her research with African International students experiences in Historically Black Colleges and University in the American South. Similarly to this project, Mandishona’s target location was also in the American South in predominantly African American spaces where education was at center stage. Mandishona finds that some of her participants in these spaces where “othered” where they had to defend their identity “from negative stereotypes” (2018). These concepts of stereotypes — being othered — in relation to identity are concurrent with Moje et al.’s findings (2009) above. Ultimately, one would expect the “opportunity for dialogue to provide these students with tools to survive in [this] society” (Mandishona 2018); the goal of literacy after considering the parameters previously discussed such as history, power, community, and identity.

Thematic Discussion

One of the main themes that resulted from our service-learning was the importance of reading and spelling. If we think about literacy from an impressionist point, one of the first thoughts that would come up are writing and reading skills for example. A willingness to learn to read is well documented in the African American past since enslavement when “Blacks emerged from slavery with a strong belief in the desirability of learning to read and write” (Anderson 1988). This is the pillar of Aldersgate Mission; teaching their students how to read, write, spell, and other social and academic skills. Rev. Dixon was concerned with some students that she labeled as “at-risk” when it came to reading specifically. Deonte was one of them. They had worked with him (not while I was present) but had not made much progress. In the literature, we see how “the acquisition of those skills has been mystified, and made, I believe, unnecessarily difficult and at times painful for minority and poor folk” (Gordon 1985). Challenges in teaching will be addressed at a later point.

I was able to work with Deonte directly. I listened to his passions and to many of his complaints. We spend a lot of time together and I made sure to target my time to him specifically whenever he walked up to me or seemed interested in talking to me. Deonte complained about teachers, about school, about Aldersgate. I found out he loved superheroes and we joked around that he would become “Flexible Deonte” and I had to be the Hulk. To follow up his interest I asked him whether he has read the stories of the Avengers and he said: “no, but there is a comic book.” I convinced him to read the comic book on top of his interest of looking at the comic art. He struggled severely but using conversation, visuals from the art, and spelling exercises all around these Avengers that did “promote discussion and would hopefully encourage further reading” (Gordon 1985). The way encouraged reading will look for Deonte is that he left Aldersgate that day with a positive memory record of reading. He showed excitement after the fact by voluntarily telling Rev. Dixon all that he learned about the Avengers by reading a little from the comic book. Getting him to learn how to read better from the paper had nothing to do with forcing him to read in authoritative ways but by connecting with him on a personal level and showing value in his interests. Mere suggestive statements like “why don’t we read more about it?” takes the stress off the possibly negative outlook he may have of framing things around having to read in the form of an assignment. It may be worth noting that in the time I spent at Aldersgate never did I see anyone teach reading to any students.

The second theme from this project was the figure of the teacher and the one of the volunteers as role models for the students. This theme worked unconsciously since being a role model never came up in conversation yet it was clearly present. In this theme, I will describe examples of role modeling such as Mr. Dan and me. Mr. Dan recognized the importance of bringing the students their culture into their classroom setting and did so routinely. Dr. Gordon describes in his research the relevance of what Mr. Dan sets out to do at Aldersgate:

“Linkage of practical experiences generated from the ‘life-world’ of a community culture — those experiences that its scholars have identified as part of the cultural knowledge base of a particular community — to classroom experience.” (1985)

When Mr. Dan ties his and the student’s daily experiences to the classroom through the view of the culture their community shares he is opening a pipeline between their poverty-stricken community towards education in the form of a classroom setting. Being able to look up to a role model can be life altering because one could picture themselves as the role model in the future. Such change could macroscopically end up as “an instrument for human liberation and social change” (Scribner 1984). Aside from sharing interests such as music and sports, Mr. Dan is representative of the population at Aldersgate. He is a young African American male from the area who know their customs, idioms, local traditions and enjoys things his students enjoy. Mr. Dan has established a setting that allows literacy to be more accessible.

My effort as a quasi-short-term role model was not geared towards the literacy setting but attaining literacy factors, in this case, readings. The work I did with Deonte, though challenging, proved to change his view of education and opened up his vision of his future. After our readings together, I told Deonte, “this is what we do in college, where I am at the moment.” He thought about my comments and did not respond immediately. At a later point, he mentioned that “I’m gonna go to college with you when I’m bigger, maybe on Monday or later.” At only 9 years of age, his perception about furthering his education may have changed. It is worth noting only a very few of the students at Aldersgate end up attending college even though they may become more literate.

The third theme in this project resulted as the lack of preparation from the part of the staff. A great initiative will not be able to live up to its goals without the right teachers. Aldersgate can only be as good as its teachers and if they don’t have the appropriate training that will become the handicap of the organization. In Anderson’s piece, when he describes Northerners’ philanthropy for restoring black education in the South he uses the example of Ogden — one of these philanthropists — who stated a need to develop educators to be trained and “well equipped with all the necessary knowledge” (1988). This need is geared not only towards words vocational skills but also literacy concretely.

An example of lack of right training can be seen in the example of Ms. Latisha. She does not have the appropriate training as seen by failing to explain terms to students such as bullying. We saw this in the case of the Boy Talk 101 initiative at Aldersgate. Winton, one of the 9-year-olds, shared with us that he was getting bullied. His friend Jabril asked Ms. Latisha what bullying was to which she was left out of words. I stepped in to explain it to Jabril. At a later time, Ms. Latisha told us that “do[esn’t] know what to tell them, [and] do[esn’t] know how to help them stop the bullying” in Boys talk or how to defend themselves. Something I took up as a personal challenge to help Winton out. As we step back to reflect we need to consider what the consequences of a shortage of skills are. Harris explains in his scholarship the fact that “insufficiently trained and inexperienced teachers” affect African American literacy moving forward (1992). The lack of appropriate training is apparent due to the fact that the mission relies on volunteers for its functioning. A volunteer can only have a certain level of training and the reliance on such a staff member shows the overall limitations of the instruction level. The way to remedy this lack of training is through professional training. The funding problematic of this mission will always be there, but setting aside some funds for professional training conferences for their staff will create better results. Improvements can be marketed to gather for grants and further state funding. Nevertheless, it is clear that professional development is in dire need for Aldersgate’s staff.

The fourth and last main theme that came up was a general lack of purpose. I recognized in the staff an attitude of feeling worn out through, what to my impression, seemed like a lack of concrete purpose. Granted, a lot work went into preparing activities for children and getting snacks ready for them, but at no point were volunteers introduced to any programs or introduced to any specific initiatives. The diversity in activities was slim. Often ranging from playing outside, having a snack, to some kind of talk, and little else during the sessions I went. There seems to be a disconnect between the goals of the mission and daily actions. Why is there a disconnect that may result in a lack of purpose? From my findings, I conclude that the staff did not have a strategy. No meetings were held as a staff group, no feedback sessions ever took place, and never did we meet to reflect on previous months or brainstorm different ideas. These service-learning proceedings did not take place proving the absence of strategy. The purpose of helping these children had no built strategic pathways with both short-term and long-term objectives. Harris herself says that most “focus not on specific teaching strategies but on broader issues such as access” (1992), something Aldersgate is great at. While access is important it is not enough if the mission wants to achieve its literacy goals and “determining conceptions of literacy in this manner necessarily imposes some restraints, such as attributing the beliefs articulated by an educated class to the vast majority of African Americans who were unlettered” (Harris 1992). Successful access into the majority educated class without gaining deeper literacy skills will result as an unstable experience without a strong base.

Conclusion

In sum, the thematic discussion details the ins and outs of the Aldersgate Mission and the means to achieve its goals to aid at-risk youth to literate and fully participant citizens. This project gives a background explanation of literacy in the African American community in the American South through the service-learning experience at this service organization. Aldersgate was representative of the socio-historical factors that come into play in literacy at this target location. Aldersgate had achieved immense success bringing youth from one end of the spectrum — deep in poverty, illiteracy, and lack of access — to educating these children to, in some cases, even reach some form of higher learning. The themes addressed in this paper show the remnants of challenges faced by disenfranchised communities such as the ones in this study. The changes to be made by an organization such as this are of no great complexity yet of great importance and if the even bigger effect in the drastic improvement providing this community. The opportunity for us students to not only reflect weekly on our service experiences but to continuously tie the first-hand impressions with the history of African American literacy in the American South and with the appropriate service-learning scholarship. This triple combination of true service learning allowed for a comprehensive synthesis of our project.

Endnotes

  1. It is worth noting that all names aside from Rev. Dixon have been coded with the aim of keeping the privacy of the human subjects reported in this reflection. Rev. Dixon, the director of the Aldersgate mission, does not have her name coded due to the public relations nature of her position.
  2. Before the reader of this article delves into the thematic reflection of this project, I must address the cross-cultural implication of my participation at Aldersgate. I recognize my appearance — a large, tall, white male — and the reservations the students may have in a place that is almost exclusively African American. It is to be noted that throughout interactions with teachers and students at Aldersgate I did not refrain from including my Spanish nationality, culture, and language in our conversations. This was not done in an attempt to justify my white skin color, privilege, or social perception, but to provide my own background when appropriate, as means of connecting with members of the mission at a personal level. As an anecdote, I recall playing cards with a few students when suddenly Jayceon rubbed my forearm after having stared at my skin for a few seconds. Mr. Dan, the teacher of the classroom, laughed and said that they often don’t see white skin that up close. To Jayceon’s act, I laughed and explained to him that the color tone won’t rub off.
  3. I use “Black” and “African American” interchangeably throughout this paper. I capitalize “Black” because “Blacks, like Asians, Latinos, and other ‘minorities,’ constitute a specific cultural group and, as such, require denotation as a proper noun.” Crenshaw, supra note 3, at 1332 n.2 (citing Catharine MacKinnon, Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: An Agenda for Theory, 7 Signs 515, 516 (1982)). Similarly, I do not capitalize “white,” which is not a proper noun, since whites do not constitute a specific cultural group. Statement comprised by Higher Education scholar, Dr. Nina Daoud.

References

Anderson, James. 1988. The Education Of Blacks In The South, 1860–1935. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Asante, Molefi Kete, and Ama Mazama. 2007. Encyclopedia Of Black Studies. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications.

Gordon, Beverly M. 1985. “Toward Emancipation In Citizenship Education: The Case Of African-American Cultural Knowledge.” Theory & Research in Social Education 12(4):1–23.

Harris, Violet J. 1992. “African‐American Conceptions Of Literacy: A Historical Perspective.” Theory Into Practice 31(4):276–286.

Mandishona, Tanyaradzwa Chipo. 2018. “Consciously Becoming Black: A Phenomenological Exploration Of Black Sub-Saharan African International Students’ Racial Identity Development At Historically Black Colleges And Universities In The American South.” Ph.D., The University of Southern Mississippi.

Moje, Elizabeth Birr, Allan Luke, Bronwyn Davies, and Brian Street. 2009. “Literacy And Identity: Examining The Metaphors In History And Contemporary Research.” Reading Research Quarterly 44(4):415–437.

Rogers, Rebecca, and Melissa Mosley. 2006. “Racial Literacy In A Second-Grade Classroom: Critical Race Theory, Whiteness Studies, And Literacy Research.” Reading Research Quarterly 41(4):462–495.

Scribner, Sylvia. 1984. “Literacy In Three Metaphors.” American Journal of Education 93(1):6–21.

Researcher interested in international law and migration governance; Graduate student at the London School of Economics mariomarset.com

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