On a recent morning, a normally hidden employee of the "Steve Harvey Morning Show" stepped into the spotlight and made a bold confession. The security guard, whose nickname is Big Boom, had not voted in all of his 53 years.
He explained that he had never registered or voted because he could not read. He couldn't fill out the paperwork.
This may seem like an unusual reason for not voting, but it may be more common than you think. Big Boom's story is a poignant reminder that even in this historic year of African Americans breaking down barriers, basic literacy is still a challenge in many of our communities. Nine out of 10 African-American students have not mastered reading by the fourth grade, according to the National Institute for Literacy. And the most recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that African Americans scored well below white adults in an assessment of reading comprehension.
I've had my own up-close encounters with illiteracy. I've had neighbors and relatives ask me to read documents to them or fill out paperwork. Not all of them admit to struggling with reading, but I suspect that's why they sought my help.
Still, a couple years ago, when I decided to volunteer at an adult literacy center, I was surprised to see there was such a need. Working with the members of the all-male group, I could see the extreme social and economic consequences of African-American boys that don't learn to read. Some of the men spent years trying to distract others from noticing their handicap. Some struggle to gain employment and have difficulty navigating everyday life.
There is a culture of reading that has to be taught—carrying books and magazines on the train and bus, keeping reading material handy at home and work, subconsciously compiling lists of texts to read for pleasure and for growth. So many of us spend every free moment we have reading something—even if it's just the cereal box—it's hard to imagine having to instruct people to do what comes naturally to us.
The men I worked with were fresh out of Chicago area detention centers, and they were desperate to learn. But time and resources weren't on their side.
In addition to fighting addictions, trying to avoid the lure of the streets and crime, the men in the class were also under pressure to find work, contribute and support households, while checking in with parole officers to show they were being productive. These men weren't just trying to rehabilitate themselves. They were trying to be strong fathers and sons and regain footing as the cornerstone of their families.
Yet they couldn't write the words from their mouths on paper. They could express their desires for a new, reformed life, but couldn't write their qualifications on a job application.
If they weren't overwhelmed, I sure was. I'd often say they could build a new life, one word at a time, but I, myself, wasn't so confident. Frustrated and pressed for time, I quit volunteering at the end of the session.
There are no statistics to document just how many men, unable to read, end up in a cycle of violence. There are no exact figures on how many illiterate people become involved in gangs and petty crime, how many float in and out of menial jobs or end up flat-out homeless. But I'm willing to guess the numbers are pretty high.
During Boom's appearance on Steve Harvey's show, he talked about overcoming many obstacles despite being illiterate. He wrote two books, he said, by recording his voice and then paying someone to transcribe it. In addition, he works for one of the most successful comedians in the country, which has gotten him the chance to travel and take care of himself.
He didn't let his reading challenges hold him back one bit, he said. Unfortunately, there are too many others who just aren't that lucky.
Lolly Bowean is a writer at the Chicago Tribune.