Black Men Reading: Raymond Williams, PART TWO

Welcome to Part Two of my Black Men Reading Conversation with Raymond Williams. In Part One, Raymond shared some of his favorite nonfiction reads and podcasts. We also talked about writing, and keeping commonplace books. We left off with Raymond saying that he would like to help change the idea “that it’s not cool for a black boy/man to read a book.” Today we are picking up where we left off by tackling some of the reasons why black males are turned-off to reading.

[LR]:  Raymond, what would you say to a black male who thinks that it is uncool to read a book?
[RW]: The author D. Watkins once said that the reason black and brown students don’t read is because the books they are required to read in school do not speak to them and their life experiences. This could lead them to think that reading is boring. In my opinion it should only be boring if you don’t like the subject material. I would ask these young men about their hobbies and interests and then let them know that there are books about those topics. The books that they are required to read in school are not representative of all books. I would encourage them to read more about their interests so that they can be more informed about the history of their hobby/interest and where it is going in the future. There is nothing wrong or uncool about expanding your knowledge on what you love and are passionate about.

“A given: African Americans want to learn and be inspired like anyone else. Scholars can help bridge the achievement gaps, but only if they take the time to see what these students are up against. My own way of tackling the problem is through literacy. I want to get more people in low-income neighborhoods to develop a love for reading by creating literature that speaks directly to poverty-stricken people and encourages them to write.” – D. Watkins, from his book The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America.

[LR]: Raymond, I like what you’ve said about entering reading via what you love and are passionate about. I’m remembering an opportunity I had to hear author Jason Reynolds speak last year. Reynolds is a black man who has written quite a few award-winning books for young adults. There were a number of young people in the audience who were really excited to see him in person. I came across a great piece about Jason Reynolds in which he talks about not having read a novel from cover to cover before age 17. He says “I want to be clear. There were books around me. There were books in the home. But the books that were given to me had nothing to do with my life.”
[RW]: The Reynolds interview was really good. I especially like when he mentioned that he never saw himself in the books that he read. It reminded me of what the author D. Watkins said (and what his students echoed) about how reading Huckleberry Finn didn’t speak to him and his experiences. It made me think about what books spoke to me when I was younger. To be honest, even though the characters did not look like me, I saw myself in books like Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and John Grisham’s novels. Maybe it was the universal good versus evil aspect of these books, I’m not sure. Later, I got into historical books in high school and I read as much as I could about the Civil Rights Movement. That’s where I truly saw myself. I saw myself in all those freedom fighters who fought for me and my generation to be able to vote and to live in a more integrated society.

Educator Vivett Dukes’s 2017 article, “The Importance of Reading to Two Black, Urban Young Men” -in which two of her young students wrote about Frederick Douglass’s journey to becoming literate alongside their own relationship with reading – is good, too. I actually wrote a journal entry after seeing the questions the students had to respond to. It was a great exercise.

It’s fascinating to me how much representation in literature matters in our society. Kids want to read but they don’t if they are unable to see their life experiences in the writing that is out there. That saddens me, I wish it were not the case. It’s good that Reynolds and Watkins are writing with these audiences in mind.

I don’t think I ever had the issue where I stopped reading altogether because I didn’t see myself in books. Now, there were certainly books that I thought were boring, but when that happened I just found and read books that were more interesting. I suspect the environment that I grew up in had something to do with that. I had people in my life who could recommend books to me because they knew what I was interested in. They knew that books were important to me because they provided me a form of escapism that I did not get when watching TV or film.

[LR]: Raymond, you know in my conversation with Andrew Fontenelle, he said that he liked the escapism in Sci-Fi-Fantasy, and said that he liked “the opportunity to imagine other worlds, other times and people.” Would you care to comment on why escapism is important?
[RW]: No problem. I don’t know if you saw this article on Goodreads, but last week the site featured an article on advice readers wanted non-readers to know about reading. A few people mentioned escapism in their responses.

Movies and tv shows both allow you to escape, but only briefly, from 20 minutes up to 2 hours. Books allow you to escape for longer periods of time, from days to weeks. Escapism in books is important to me because it allows me to go into new worlds, in the case of fiction, or, I’m able to time-travel if its an historical book. Nonfiction books allow me to see how people years ago saw the world and then I’m able to compare how things have and have not changed since that time. Even though the characters and stories of fiction books are not real, they tend to be based on, or influenced by, actual events and people. Lastly, escapism, allows me to live the lives of fictional and historical characters.

This reminds me of a quote from one of George R.R. Martin’s books “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”  There is another quote in my commonplace book that is similar, from another source, and I can’t recall it verbatim, but the quote says something to the effect that reading gives us life lessons to learn from. We learn from people’s failures and mistakes so that we don’t make the same ones. Imagine all the life lessons and wisdom we are missing out on when we don’t read. Escapism in books allows us to mentally get away from this current world and gives us opportunities to apply the lessons from those books to our current lives.

[LR]: Wow -I’m glad I asked you that question! And, no, I hadn’t read that article on Goodreads, but, I’m going to, now. I haven’t asked you about your fiction reads, but since you quoted Haruki Murakami earlier, I wondered if he is one of your favorites? (Was this quote something you wrote in your commonplace book?)
[RW]: I’ve actually never read any of Murakami’s work. I saw the quote recently on a bookmark that I received from my Book of the Month Club subscription. Yes, I did write it in my commonplace book. As for fiction, I have a variety of interests. My favorite author is John Grisham, who writes mostly legal thrillers. I was introduced to his work by accident through my high school librarian. I have read all of his books for adults and had the opportunity to meet him at a book signing last year. Four fiction books that I really enjoyed in the last year were: The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, The Mothers by Brit Bennett, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. (You’ll notice that more people have read these books than the nonfiction books I mentioned earlier.)

[LR]: When it comes to fiction, what kinds of stories are you attracted to?
[RW]: That’s a tough one. I think I’m attracted to anything that speaks to me at the moment. I like fiction that focuses on life’s complexities. Obviously that’s not a genre but all four books that I mentioned in the previous answer fit into this idea. The Heart’s Invisible Furies focuses on the life of an adopted young Irish man who is trying to find himself, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo focuses on the rags-to-riches life of a reclusive actress, The Mothers focuses on how a three-person friendship changes when secrets come out in the open, and The Hate U Give focuses on the turmoil a young girl faces after her unarmed friend is killed by a cop. All four books are very different but somehow I liked them all.


[LR]: Since you shared that you like reading physical books, that you’ve begun journaling, and keeping a commonplace book, I feel less alone in the world – Lol! I engage in these same activities, which often seem out of place in our high-tech, fast-paced, touchscreen world. Can you comment on your personal balance of reflective, “time-and-mind-intensive” activities (like journaling, keeping a commonplace book, writing reviews and scholarly papers), and your embrace of “time-saving” activities?
[RW]: I agree that it is a struggle. Reading is something I do everyday without fail. I usually read on my commute to work and a little before bed. The commonplace book tends to come in when I read a passage that I really like and I instantly need to find my commonplace book and jot it down. Journaling is something I need to make more time for. I don’t journal everyday but I need to start. Writing book reviews is fun because it allows me to reflect on what I read. I tend to take notes after I finish the book and then I just start typing and see where I end up.
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You can connect with Raymond’s Tiny Letter here;
on Goodreads here; and
on Twitter here.
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read “The Importance of Reading to Two Black, Urban Young Men” by Vivett Dukes.

read “12 Things Readers Want NonReaders to Know” on Goodreads.

8 Comments

  1. Oh thank goodness authors like Watkins and Reynolds are writing books young people like my grandson can identify with. I have heard him say how reading bores him more than once. I now plan to share with him these other options. Just think! One day he may get the opportunity to present some fresh material via a book report of his own choosing to his class.

  2. Wonderful conclusion. What prompts young ones to read, or keep reading, is a mystery to me, and perhaps to each individual. My son and my daughter were read to, encouraged to read, were surrounded by books, but it was my daughter who became the dedicated reader. My son simply opted out of reading till his mid 20s. In my own case, as a child I read anything I could; and the further away it was from my own experience the better. I would have been bored silly if the books available to me only dealt with my safe, happy childhood. As an adult, my choice of books is usually non-fiction. I find it very difficult to relate to fiction. These days I want something that validates my life or inspires it. Even though I find it hard to fathom people’s motivation for reading, I don’t think we should give up trying to encourage people to read.

  3. Love the discussion on escapism that books provide and I agree with the points Raymond makes. The stories from books are more lasting and resonate stronger. Though movies/tv shows can be impactful, their influence on me tend to be fleeting. The effect of The Shape of Water book on me was much stronger than the movie, which I also loved.

  4. Loved the second half of this interview even more than the first. I particularly like how Raymond described relating more to books like Harry Potter, e.g., books that spoke to the larger human struggle rather than books that necessarily tied into his day-to-day life. I felt very much like that growing up, possibly because there were very few books by Hispanic New Mexico writers back then, and none (that I knew of) that talked about growing up a Hispanic little girl in New Mexico. So I loved fairy tales in particular, because I could always relate to the concept of a quest, a prize, a reward for deeds being done correctly. There was also the romance aspect of it, as I’d imagine most little girls have that longing for it in their hearts. But as I got older, I really related to the books of Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume. Cleary because she seemed to always write about misfits, nerds, kids that didn’t quite fit in or were getting into scrapes because they didn’t have much common sense, and that was certainly me back then. Blume I loved as I got older because she talked so openly about bodies changing, menstruation, getting bras, and also about the family dynamics between mothers, daughters, brothers and fathers…….and growing up in a highly dysfunctional family where my mother didn’t really give us much information about puberty, those books were Godsends. So I love that other readers found that same connection not by race or ethnicity or similarity of appearance, but because they could connect to something larger in the grand scheme of things. Can’t wait to see your next interview!

  5. When I taught in the local community college “developmental English” (pre college credit courses for underserved high school graduates) I ran into discussions about reading “making people white.” A bad thing, “not to offend you, Miss.” Any thought on this poisonous anti-intellectual belief?

    1. Hi Elizabeth. It really bothers me when I hear comments like that. I think it can be very destructive to a young person’s self-esteem and it can make them feel even more alone especially when they are trying to figure out and discover their identity. Comments like that are basically another form of bullying and peer pressure to guilt someone into not reading because it doesn’t fit into one’s notion about being authentically Black, Hispanic, etc. I heard comments like that growing up and it always made me feel a little isolated from some of my black peers. The good part is that I just found another set of black friends (and friends of other races) who did love to read. Years later I discovered that there is more than one way to be black, after reading the phenomenal book How To Be Black by Baratunde Thurston. Minority kids should be taught early on that it is ok to be different. That they are not betraying their race if they like to read, in fact they are lifting up their race by expanding their knowledge and becoming more productive members of society.

  6. Thanks for not keeping us waiting for part two, Leslie! This is marvelous. I understand part of not seeing yourself in a character or a book, but when you mentioned escapism, I had to wonder whether not seeing myself is necessarily bad. I never saw myself in anyone in “Huck Finn,” by the way — but I got engrossed in the story, being read to me and reading it myself. (The same with “Moby-Dick” — it wasn’t read to me, but it was so engrossing it could have been.) If I’m not seeing myself in any character in a book, if I’m therefore conscious of myself just sitting there reading it, it’s not a book I’m likely to finish. Boredom seems to me to be another word for insensitivity — and it takes very good writing to keep people sensitive to thought and feeling, as you prove.

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