Write to Live: How a Writing Classroom Should Look When #BLACKLIVESMATTER

by David E. Kirkland

Black men and boys are dying, but our death is not always literal, though it is always painful and tragic still. Before the physical death lives a more figurative tragedy–the fatal violence that hinders dreams, the brutal slayings of hope and inspiration that too characteristically typify Black male experiences in school. Yet even in this reality, Black males write. We write to live. However, educators do not always recognize or affirm our writing or make room for its practice (or for us) in classrooms.

The Violence Against Dreams

Despite claims that all lives matter, the evidence suggests some lives matter less. Recent educational statistics bear this out. According to the 2015 Schott Foundation report on public education,

  • In literacy, the reading difference in 2011 between Black males (age 9) and their White counterparts (age 9) was a staggering 22 points.
  • A comparison of Black males at age 9 and 13 also revealed a widening difference in literacy “performance.” By some reports, the difference is as much as 10% annually.

The national reading data presents a similarly bleak picture.

  • Approximately 12% of Black males test proficiently in reading, compared to 40% of other American youth.
  • Nearly 70% of Black fourth grade boys read below grade level, compared to 27% of White children.

The comparisons go beyond age and race. Hispanic and Asian fourth graders fared better than Black males, even when English was their second language.

In this light (or should I say violent darkness), Black males occupy the bottom (or near the bottom) of all academic achievement categories associated with school success. Disturbingly, we sit atop all academic achievement categories associated with school failure.

  • Black males typically are less likely to take AP and honors courses.
  • We achieve lower on standardized  tests, earn lower GPAs, and graduate at lower rates than White students.
  • In recent years, we have seen the graduation gap between Black and White males widen, increasing from 19% in 2009-10 to 21% in 2012-13.
  • We’ve also seen the national graduation rate for Black males remain stubbornly low, below 60% (in 2012-13, 59% compared to 80% for White, non-Latino males).
  • At the same time, Black males are grossly over-represented among dropouts, special education tracks, and school suspensions.
  • Nationally, we are three times more likely to be suspended than White males (15% of Black males received out-of-school suspensions, compared to 5% of White males).   

Literate Black (Male) Lives . . . Matter

In a time when the mantra—“Black lives matter”— rings loud, if not true, the data suggest that the literate lives of Black males seem optional.  However, there is no single story of Black men and boys.

Hopelessness for Black males isn’t imagined; it’s invented. While it is deeply entrenched, it is not inevitable.Photo reads, Hopelessness for black males isn't imagined- it's invented. While it is deeply entrenched, it is not inevitable.

Contrary to the statistics, Black males lead highly literate lives as both unlikely readers and writers undetected by school definitions of literacy. More than this, we are emcees and bombers, poets and street philosophers who hustle ears and hearts, entertain minds and memories in ways that national writing standards rarely appreciate.

Recent research illustrates Black males as writers. There is a growing body of research that describes how urban poetry and spoken word, tattoos and tags, raps and roast, for instance, are all forms of Black male literacy. This scholarship also reveals Black male writers who pen-stroke ideas in digital streaks on computer screens, who finger-poke cellphones and tablet keyboards—always reading, always writing. There are no statistics for this! These communicative genres are hidden from the hegemonic mainstream, “rooted in the Black Oral Tradition of tonal semantics, narrativizing, signification/ signifyin, the Dozens/playin the Dozens, Africanized syntax, and other communicative practices” (Smitherman, 1999, p. 321).  

Because of what she sees as the “teeming life of literacy” among such youth of promise, scholars such as Anne Haas Dyson suggest that the so-called literacy gap—the quantitative difference between White and Black students — reflects a prejudice against Black students more than it shows a difference in literacy achievement.  

How a Writing Classroom Should Look When #BlackLivesMatter

In 2009, steeped in the context of Black male literate lives, I began writing a book,  A Search Past Silence, which sought to interrupt the narratives of crisis that typify how we see (or do not see) literacy and life among Black males. The book also sought to rethink literacy, privileging the social languages and lives of Black males. It aspired to provide a stage for performances of Black masculine selves, dramatized in unrehearsed acts of reading and writing. In short, it showcased the literacies that we would see if Black male literate lives truly mattered.

When Black male literacies matter in classrooms, classrooms transcend dead words. They become about more than sites to decontextualized units of language or spaces to heighten awareness of phonemes. They live, and in them, there is an energy of people transacting things.

Like Gholdy Muhammad suggests in her post about Black females, writing classrooms responsive to Black male literate life situate writing in the lives of real people by helping students to write to live and to make sense of life. Thus, to show that Black male lives matter in classrooms, we must take account of young Black men as historical beings delicately carved out of deep lineages that trace back to histories and historical patterns of oppression that, to this very day, play out as questions surrounding Black life and our human right to live.

Writing classrooms in which Black lives matter must be organized around this practice. They must consider the motivations informing Black (male) literacy. They must view both the writers and the writing, itself, with the possibilities of intellectual merit — and also through the delicate, though pedagogical, act of love.

For Black lives to matter in the writing classroom, we must challenge “the ways” and “the for whoms” the writing classroom works. Only through this kind of (ex)change will the statistics on Black male education be transformed–and writing teachers liberated from the bondage of indifference.


David E. Kirkland, JD, PhD, is an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. He is also the Executive Director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at davidekirkland@gmail.com and followed on Twitter.


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