An article published in The Root last year about a Florida barbershop that promotes literacy sparked a movement miles away in the cities of Prichard and Mobile, Ala.
Freddie Stokes launched Books for Boys about three weeks ago. He initially intended to establish small libraries, of about 75 books each, in two or three barbershops, but the response to his initiative was so overwhelming that Stokes says he’s now able to establish libraries in at least six barbershops. The first one will open in mid-June.
“We don’t want to stop until all the barbershops in this community have libraries,” he says, with an air of reserved confidence that it will be done.
Stokes is supplying books with which black boys can identify. “When our boys say they don’t like to read, a lot of that is coming from not being interested in reading about characters that don’t look like them,” he explains. His growing stockpile includes biographies, such as Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up to Become Malcolm X, 12 Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali and Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope.
In addition to promoting literacy, Books for Boys aims to raise self-esteem. Stokes grew up in public housing and struggled early in school, having to repeat the third grade. A teacher inspired him to read books, including those about successful African Americans, which allowed him to dream big and ultimately achieve his goals.
Stokes worked in classrooms for two years through Teach for America, an organization that places recent college graduates and professionals in underserved classrooms. He introduced his students to books with positive black characters and watched their self-esteem grow.
“When I went from the classroom to the courtroom, I was able to connect the violence to a lack of reading and self-esteem,” says Stokes, who is also a criminal defense attorney in private practice.
“After reading the article in The Root, I asked myself, why isn’t this [barbershop libraries] in every community?” he recalls. “Then one day I got an epiphany: Just get up and do the work. We can’t wait on the government to do it for us.”
Stokes admits that he didn’t expect the overwhelming response that he received. Barbershop owners said that they are expecting scores of boys to come in over the summer and would gladly offer them books. Parents, sometimes groups of them, are donating with a request that Stokes open a library where they take their sons. And local professionals are opening their wallets to sponsor barbershops, sometimes with a request that Stokes purchase books that emphasize math and science.