“The Transformative Power of Reading and Writing”

This post is about two books that make me think about my inherited relationship to literacy.  Recently I have been reading Black Ink: Literary Legends on the Peril, Power, and Pleasure of Reading and Writing, edited by Stephanie Stokes Oliver. Such a book is emotionally charged for me because it represents a convergence of cares and studies and values:  21st century manifestations of ancestral struggles; my own journey to uncover my interior world and manifest a writing voice; my love of reading and learning; and why literacy work is important for me.

Black Ink edited by Stephanie Stokes Oliver (photo by Leslie Reese)

When we think about ourselves reading and writing for pleasure and empowerment, it’s easy to forget that for more than 200 years it was not only illegal for enslaved black people in the United States in many southern states, but also punishable by death. Anti-Literacy Laws also meant that whites could be punished by fines, floggings, and imprisonment for teaching blacks to read in a number of states before and during the American Civil War.

In the Foreword to Stephanie Stokes Oliver’s Black Ink, Nikki Giovanni shares her [radical re-imagining] of the origins of the first Black American “writing:” it came from a mature black woman in the hole of a slaveship. Giovanni writes: “She knew she needed to say something to her people, though there is no such language as “African.” So she reached into her soul and began a moan. And that moan was picked up and carried forth. By the time the ship reached what would be called America, those on that ship had one thing in common: a song.” Giovanni goes on to make the case that the first Black American writing was rendered in song and spoken shared stories.

Formerly the editor of “Essence” magazine and founding editor-in-chief of “Heart & Soul” magazine, Stephanie Stokes Oliver gifted us with Black Ink: Literary Legends on the Peril, Power, and Pleasure of Reading and Writing in 2018. In it, she has selected excerpts from essays, memoirs, and autobiographies of 25 black luminaries who explain their own labors and joys associated with reading and writing.

Black Ink inside (photo by Leslie Reese)

Reading this volume has reminded me of a wonderful book that I found and reviewed back in 2013. It’s called The Word: Black Writers Talk About the Transformative Power of Reading and Writing, edited by Marita Golden. In this book – published in 2011 – Marita Golden actually interviewed 13 writers about their formative encounters with reading and writing. At the end of each interview are books which that writer recommends to others. This book is a gem that I feel has gone unmined so I am reprinting my mini review of it, here.

The Word edited by Marita Golden (photo by Leslie Reese)

The Word: Black Writers Talk About the Transformative Power of Reading and WritingThe Word: Black Writers Talk About the Transformative Power of Reading and Writing by Marita Golden

This book came out in 2011, but I just discovered it. Hallelujah! Book lover, esteemed author and editor of several books, educator, and co-founder of the [Zora Neale Hurston]Hurston/[Richard] Wright Foundation—Marita Golden is the interviewer and editor of this collection of 13 writers from the African diaspora talking about how reading and writing have impacted their lives. (In the introduction Marita Golden writes about her own background as a reader and writer, and shares her list of influential books, so you’re actually getting 14 perspectives—not just 13).

Most of the writers are African American, some of mixed heritage, one is Nigerian, and another, Haitian. Some are historians and journalists, while others have written plays, fiction, memoir, and poetry. I love the diversity represented, here. I wasn’t familiar with four of the writers, so I look forward to reading their work in the future.

Each writer’s section opens with their photograph and closes with a list of their book recommendations—and their lists are as diverse as they are! (However, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon was recommended by three different writers; Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart are mentioned by two). I was very moved and inspired by this book.

Before [the late] Don Cornelius brought “Soul Train” to the masses, many of us in the black community had never seen the bulk of our favorite singers and musical groups on television because “mainstream” programs weren’t hip to them or they weren’t invited for other reasons….This book fills a similar void, in that, while many of these writers have published extensively, they haven’t often been included in anthologies of writer conversations/interviews.

Similarly, I was reminded that it wasn’t long ago that people could complete K-12, earn a college degree, and be considered “educated” without having ever read anything by or about non-white people!

Have you ever thought about your own literacy in a personal way? What type of literacy did you inherit? What people and books have shaped your reading and writing life?
In “Black Joy on Television: The Cultural Legacy of Soul Train,” Stephen Deusner writes that Soul Train “created a platform for black artists and presented black culture—fashion, dance, politics—in a positive light.”

Did you miss this post:  “Memory Of First Reads?”



  1. An excellent post! The other comments got me thinking about how strange our country’s education has become that “literacy” and “reading” feel like two different things. As a teacher for a university’s composition department, I constantly see students who are capable of reading texts but have NO idea how to dissect what they’ve read. There’s no skill in understanding or criticizing, and I wonder if this comes from the lack of reading *outside* the classroom as well as teaching by templates—go with the stories that have always been told, teach no new themes, and move on. This means neither students or teachers have to test themselves beyond the pre-existing norms traveled for so many years that the ruts of the road have become trenches, and we can’t be bothered to climb a ladder out.”

    1. You bring up some concerning points, Jean Lee. To me,literacy is about being engaged, informed, transported, and empowered by what we read. A computer software system can “read” keywords in a cover letter, but what does it understand about the person who wrote it and the context of what those keywords mean? Nothing! There are many “literate,” “educated” people for whom reading is mostly transactional…..I feel myself about to go on a rant about this so I will restrain myself and pause here for the time being.

  2. Leslie! I’m reading Black Ink as we speak! Wow. Also, the video you have of the Soul Train board, one of the commenters (Lloyd Boston) I went to high school with. I’m also going to check out the other book you mentioned. Heading to read the rest of your other blog post now!

    1. Hi Audra – How are you liking Black Ink, so far? Maybe we should plan to buddy-read something together in the future. Snap!I’m going to watch the video again to see your classmate.

  3. I recently heard about an African-American author, who publicly admitted to never reading anything African or African American. It saddened me because it shows that we still privilege others’ writing over black folks. Anywho, it’s challenging for me to choose one book that shaped my literate life. My mother had an English degree from UIC, so I was born into and around books. My family valued reading and writing to a degree that (at that time) I hadn’t seen anywhere else other than my Jewish best friend’s home. I suppose my point is if we want to pass on a love of literacy and literate habits, then we should introduce those ideas at home. They should welcome our babies the same way onesies and cribs do.

    1. Hear! Hear!Don’t show up to any baby showers without onesies, diapers, food and books!
      I’m scratching my head over the black author who “never read anything African or African American.” Did this person mean: in the past? or were they speaking in the present tense? What this points up to me is that – even at this “late” hour – if we want to read more richly, if we want to read more stories and voices besides those of the white and privileged, we have to make our own efforts! As your literate background illustrates, some of us can grow up in literate cocoons that can feel like near-anomalies in our extended families and communities.

      Kathy, I know you were greeted by the firewall recently while trying to leave comments on the blog, so thank you for being one of the people to notify me that there were technical difficulties! And I appreciate you returning to try again🙏🏾💖

  4. I have not thought about my reading literacy which probably speaks volumes in itself. Both my parents were readers although my mother, who came of age in the 1930’s, did not finish school. She had eclectic tastes and on our shelves were the great early science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein, humour writing by Peg Bracken (The I Hate to Housekeep Book), Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

    I studied dead old white guys in university (English Literature) but one course that lead me in a new direction was called “Commonwealth Writers” where I read Things Fall Apart, a shocking book to a sheltered, small town, provincial girl, and The Mystic Masseur by VS Naipaul.

    My reading until very recently has been random, picking up books that came recommended from sources I trust, like friends and bloggers. Through them I’ve read the work of Esi Edugyen (Half Blood Blues), Yaa Gyasi (Homegoing). I think this is also in part to the increased coverage in many media sources of a wide range of writers. I think I learned about Yaa Gyasi’s book Homegoing through the magazine “Poets and Writers”.

    I subscribe to a few Canadian literary magazines and lately there has been a push towards including voices from indigenous people, the LGBTQ community, and communities that have been marginalized and so my reading literacy grows. And of course, I learn so much from you, Leslie.

    1. Susanne, when you said that your mother was an avid reader, although she didn’t finish school, it made me “romanticize” a time when I think that people valued their literacy more. And maybe there was less competition for their mental attention in those days – fewer films, no television, etc., but when I was a child there were adults in my life who may have only gone as far as elementary school, yet, they read the daily newspapers, they wrote letters, and they encouraged us to take pride in knowing how to read and write. Having books in the home has a strong, if nuanced impact on our curiosity about books, don’t you think?

      To your observation about having the scope of our reading broadened due to “increased coverage in many media sources” – I’m with you on that. I’ve always aspired to read widely, but coming in contact with readers/bloggers/writers from around the world makes that aspiration even stronger. I, too, have read writing by VS Naipaul, Chinua Achebe, Esi Edugyen, and Yaa Gyasi, but, WHILE IN SCHOOL the only living (at the time) young black writer I remember reading was James Baldwin’s much anthologized short story, “Sonny’s Blues.” There are so many communities whose work has been marginalized that I hope to read more of in the future. Thank you, as always for hanging out, here, reading and contributing to the chat on my blog😘. Recently, people trying to comment were being met by a firewall and I had to spend time on the telephone with an IT person explaining that the comments are an important part of what happens here!

  5. I’ve always had a pretty good handle on the spoken word, or should I say I’m a talker. I love words, and excelled at English in school and college. Writing fascinates me, especially jotting down snippets of ideas.

    Thinking back, I wasn’t encouraged to read a whole lot, but the reason wasn’t because my beloved foster mother didn’t want me to be intelligent. She didn’t want me to rush ahead of my foster sister Toni who couldn’t have cared less. I wasn’t deterred however.

    I found a way to learn to communicate better on and off paper. What reading I could do at home, helped with that. So did the Ministry School at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

    Thankfully, there was also the school library where I could get my hands on more than magazines with pictures, the Bible [prefer Psalms &Proverbs], and Reader’s Digest. I even tried adding my own little book in the library one time; though I can’t remember now what it was about.

    More than likely though, it was a short story of some sort. I love short stories. When I was reading your post, one volume of many came to mind. It must have been one I found at home, one my mother had squirreled away. James Baldwin was its author. I remember reading every word of his collection of short stories. Then I went to the library and found another book, an anthology of black writers of short stories from 1899-1967. Sweet!

    I’ve dreamt up a number of short story ideas over the years, and even thought I might get a few published. To my knowledge, blogs were not popular years ago when I was really gung-ho about doing this. Thankfully, blogs are in like Flint now, and I’m on the bandwagon!

    1. Hi Sparkyjen! – For me, your comments translate to “where there’s a will, there’s a way!” Words are your thing, and it seems you were bound to find a way to enjoy your share of them verbally as well as reading and writing them! I, too, love the Book of Psalms in the Bible.

      Recently I was doing some work at my neighborhood public library, and the librarian told me that Chicago Public Schools no longer have school libraries and librarians! I thought she was mistaken, but I found an article from 2017 that said “The district budgeted for about 454 librarians in 2013, but only 139 for the 2017-18 school year, according to CPS data.”(“Information Literacy Lost: Most CPS Schools No Longer Have Librarians”). I am very sad about this, and I want to do some more research and post about it in the future because having libraries in schools is SO important!!!! I can’t stress it, enough!

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