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TERRI SCHLICHENMEYER

Read this.

And that. Read what’s next to it, what’s above it, and the next page. Read it, because words soar. Read it because you can. As you’ll see in “Black Ink,” edited by Stephanie Stokes Oliver, it wasn’t always so.

For 200 years of this country’s history, it was illegal for a person with black skin to read. Also illegal was writing in words that made sense; slaves who defied the law faced severe punishment, as did their teachers. Because of that, the story of “full literacy among African Americans has yet to be documented,” says Oliver, and this book helps “fill that void.”

When Frederick Douglass was a young man, for instance, he was owned by a “kind and tender-hearted woman” who taught him to read. Before he fully understood the process, however, she turned “evil,” but Douglass was undaunted. Seeing that which was started as a means to a better future, he used “various stratagems” and found unaware “poor White children” who helped him fill in the blanks.

Books helped Ta-Nehisi Coates to learn who he was, while Booker T. Washington saw a schoolroom as “paradise.” Zora Neale Hurston once claimed that she was “supposed to write about the Race Problem”—problem was, that wasn’t her interest.

As one of the best students in his eighth-grade class, Malcolm X dreamed of being a lawyer until a teacher put him down with words meant to “be realistic.” Instead, it lit a fire in young X’s spirit and drove him to be successful.

By virtue of reading this far here, you know you’re a reader. But what kind of meaning does the written word hold? For the 27 African American writers included in “Black Ink,” words are everything.

Stephanie Stokes Oliver pulls together African American literary giants who seem to make literacy something that should be in bold neon letters. Indeed, the essays you’ll find in here will make bookworms want to stand up and cheer.

 

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