Boys who go to neighborhood barbershops in the Mobile and Pritchard, Alabama area are getting more than a haircut. They’re also discovering books they can relate to, with characters that look like them.
Freddie Stokes, a local attorney, started his literacy mission nearly one year ago. He graduated from the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University, but his own academic career got off to a rocky start.
Stokes grew up under challenging circumstances in a Mobile public housing community—in a section of the city he recalls as “the worst community in West Alabama.”
He said children there lacked positive role models in the neighborhood, and they certainly couldn’t find them in the books they read.
Consequently, it was difficult to “connect our identity to examples of academic successes from our community or from what we were exposed to in our school.” That had a negative impact on Stokes and his classmates’ self-esteem.
The future literacy advocate hated opening books and had trouble reading at his grade level. But when Stokes was in the third grade—the second time around—a teacher read a story to the class about a fictional slave girl named Addy Walker that inspired him.
His teacher, who is White, was so moved by the story that tears rolled down her face after she finished reading, Stokes recalls. She told her students that they have the power to dream and achieve that vision.
After graduating from law school, Stokes joined Teach for America, an organization that recruits college graduates and professionals to teach for two years in poor communities.
He encountered students at his assigned middle school in Huntsville, Ala. who were like him—having trouble reading and lacking a vision or hope for their future.
“I made sure that I introduced books into the classroom that my students could relate to,” he said. “I saw better results when I connected things we read about to real life stories and people my students could identify with.”
This motto guided him: “Kids can’t be what kids can’t see.”
Illiteracy among Black boys is at a crisis level, according to Matthew Lynch, dean of the Virginia Union University’s school of education, psychology, and interdisciplinary studies. In the Huffington Post, he points to a recent study by the Black Star Project that found just 10 percent of eighth grade Black boys are capable of reading at grade level.
Lynch writes that Black boys begin kindergarten “with inherent disadvantages” and move along through their schooling with a “behind the 8-ball” way of thinking.
After leaving the classroom and entering the courtroom to work as a criminal attorney, Stokes said he became “perplexed by violence.” With careful thought, he connected his clients’ violence to the low self-esteem that many Black boys develop when they find themselves devalued by society, uneducated, and having few positive life options.
He said, “I knew that if our boys read more, they would be less violent and more literate.” After reading an article about an initiative to place books in barbershops, Stokes had “an epiphany.”
“We can’t wait on President Obama to give grants for books in barbershops,” he told himself. “We have to do the work, and we can’t always wait on government.”
That sparked what Stokes believes will become a larger movement. He was quickly able to raise hundreds of dollars from local business owners and parents who supported the idea of placing libraries in barbershops.
His goal is to place about 75 books in participating barbershops. Some of the most popular books so far include Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up to Become Malcolm X; Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali; Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope, and various Dr. Seuss books.
Stokes, who’s an optimist, expects parents to find books their sons can identify with when they go to a neighborhood barbershop. Above all, he hopes to ignite a love for reading that encourages the boys to dream and achieve a successful future.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty