We Need to Teach Young Men of Color Differently. That Starts With Books Where They Are Celebrated
I curated the Rising Voices Library in partnership with Scholastic in order to address an enduring problem: Young men of color do not see their own lives and backgrounds reflected in positive ways in the authentic text they read in their classrooms. Comprised of two copies of 25 titles per grade level from K-5 for a total of 300 books, each of them an inspiring narrative featuring a protagonist who is a man or a young man of color, Rising Voices is a landmark in the movement for culturally relevant curricula.
The void of representation begins as early as kindergarten and continues through high school, when students are writing term papers about novels in which protagonists of color are absent. The status quo marginalizes these students, resulting all too often in their disengagement. Unable to recognize themselves in their curriculum, disengaged students are climbing an uphill battle.
This has to change.
I know how the literature of writers and great leaders of color like Frederick Douglass, Paul Robeson, Phillis Wheatley and Malcolm X impacted my life. As a young man, I was forever changed by their scintillating prose, their brash, daring ideas, and the fact that these men and women wrote about people like me and shared dimensions of my experience as an African American. All students deserve access to diverse literature, and I have sought to provide that throughout my time as an educator.
My career in educating young men of color spans decades, starting as a teacher who worked his way up to principal. I became the founding principal of the original Eagle Academy in the Bronx, working with then-Sen. Hillary Clinton and the civic organization One Hundred Black Men. Currently, I serve as president and CEO of the Eagle Academy Foundation, the leading education reform nonprofit at the center of a network of six all-boy public schools located in each of the five boroughs of New York City as well as Newark, New Jersey. These all-male public schools create a nurturing environment where young men of color grow into successful, confident adults.
Our schools have pioneered a revolutionary, self-affirming approach to educating young men of color, and the numbers speak for themselves. For the 2018-19 school year, 98 percent of our seniors graduated and 100 percent were accepted to college. The Eagle Academy graduation rate is almost 30 percent higher than the national average for boys of color.
That is to say that I know how to educate young men of color. When Scholastic approached me in 2018 and asked if I would be willing to help curate the Rising Voices Library, I was thrilled by the opportunity to help boys of color and more broadly all students across the country.
There were several critical dimensions to the holistic framework that informed the selection of books for the Rising Voices Library. We wanted these books to help students of color understand the value of family, culture and community in terms of how we can enrich each other’s lives and foster a safe, protective culture. I also wanted the Rising Voices Library to have memorable characters in whom young men of color could see and better understand themselves.
The texts in this collection are authentic, meaning that they were written to teach students to reflect on how they feel about what they read, rather than focusing on teaching a particular skill. Moreover, these books were deliberately selected to celebrate the aspirations and abilities of boys and men of color.
Educators, teachers, boys and young men of color need to see, read and include literature that speaks to black and Latino culture in their curriculum choices. This collection is for everyone, for every teacher and for every student. It is meant to deepen their understanding of the experiences of boys of color and enhance the entire school community by exposing everyone to diverse cultures and experiences.
We want readers to reflect on the characteristics that make someone a hero as well as a resilient problem solver. We also think it’s essential that the books emphasize how their protagonists dreamed big and then actualized those dreams.
Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People, by Monica Brown, is a strong example of how our collection seeks to embrace experiences across the spectrum of communities of color by highlighting a Latinx artist who achieved enduring cultural impact. This book is lauded for the portrait it paints of Neruda’s soaring imagination, his rich inner life and his love for Chile and its people. I am deeply proud that we could make this book part of our collection because I want all students to dream courageously through their own cultural identity.
I certainly want young men of color to understand that with determination, discipline and the support of their community, they can change the world. Carole Weatherford’s biography of innovative director and National Medal of Arts recipient Gordon Parks, Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America, is a testament to this resilience.
Although Parks began his professional life as a working-class photographer with lofty dreams, he was able to turn those dreams into a towering legacy in the entertainment industry through hard work and a willingness to speak the truth about segregation. Young men who read about his life are reaping the rewards of positive representation — they are seeing what dedication and overcoming obstacles can result in.
This is the philosophy I’ve been living and breathing my entire life as an educational leader. I helped curate the Rising Voices Library with an eye toward helping more young men of color to benefit from what I have learned during my 30-plus years in education.
Twenty-five years ago, Rudine Sims Bishop wrote a seminal essay titled “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” So much of what Sims Bishop wrote rings true today when discussing the lack of black characters and themes in children’s books. In short, Sims Bishop was communicating three critical points: The mirror symbolizes the importance of children seeing themselves reflected in books. The window allows a child to look through and see other worlds, and the sliding glass door inspires one to believe that they can in fact enter into that world with hard work and determination.
Uplifting young men of color and celebrating their identities can help in fundamentally elevating their educational and life outcomes. As a nation, we need to commit to helping all students be more successful in school and life. The Rising Voices Library is an essential step toward that goal.
David C. Banks is president and CEO of the Eagle Academy Foundation. He was the founding principal of Eagle Academy in the Bronx and was also the founding principal of the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice.