For the last several days, rapper 50 Cent and boxer Floyd Mayweather have engaged in the favorite pastime of any 21st-century celebrity with a Twitter account and an ego: feuding. While in the old days you might have had to stand on a street corner and shout insults at a nemesis face-to-face, with a few neighborhood friends to cheer you on, today Instagram, Twitter and every other form of social media make the entire world observers to celebrities doing modern-day versions of “the dozens.”
But the 50 Cent-Mayweather feud recently took an ugly turn, one that casts a spotlight on an issue that should be no laughing matter, particularly to two men who are admired by so many young black boys.
There are conflicting reports over what triggered the initial dispute between 50 Cent (government name Curtis Jackson) and Floyd Mayweather, but in recent days the back-and-forth between the two has focused on one issue: Mayweather’s reading skills. Jackson used a positive platform—the philanthropic viral sensation known as the Ice Bucket Challenge—and turned it into a tool for ridicule.
For those who don’t know, the Ice Bucket Challenge has been used to raise funds for ALS, also referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. A person either films him- or herself being doused in a bucket of ice water or declines and then writes a check to the charity. He or she then challenges someone else on camera. So far, celebrities from LeBron James to President George W. Bush have participated, raising more than $50 million for the ALS Association in the process. But instead of issuing the Ice Bucket Challenge to Mayweather, Jackson offered to give $750,000 to charity if Mayweather would read a page from Harry Potter out loud on camera.
Calling it the “ALS/ESL Challenge,” Jackson enlisted comedian Jimmy Kimmel to offer Mayweather a chance to read the page on air before amending the challenge. “We know you can’t pronounce those words in that Harry Potter book, so we’re going to let you read The Cat in the Hat.” In response, Mayweather posted photos of two checks made out to his company totaling more than $70 million, with the caption “Read this … ”
Jackson responded: “I guess you want people to see your math is better then your reading.” The war of words has continued, with a radio station piling on by playing a clip purported to be of Mayweather struggling to read.
While some are having a good laugh, I find it mind-boggling that accomplished adults would spend so much of their time and public platforms making jokes about one of our community’s most serious issues. According to an analysis of multiple reports on America’s racial achievement gap, African-American high school seniors, on average, have the same reading proficiency as white eighth-graders.
Even more disturbing, the reading scores of African-American male 12th-graders are consistently much lower than those of every other racial, ethnic and gender group. Making these numbers even more disconcerting is that reading proficiency as early as third grade is a predictor of who is more or less likely to drop out of high school. Those struggling with literacy at that age are more likely to drop out. And dropout rates remain one of the greatest predictors of future incarceration among males from urban communities.
So what exactly is funny about shaming a young black man about his possible struggles with reading?
Making Mayweather’s public treatment even more frustrating is that shame may already be one of the biggest adversaries in our battle to educate our kids. I have personally heard of stories in which those struggling to read in school are made to feel uncomfortable by classmates and even teachers, and as a result they give up altogether. Shaming a child’s reading skills is not a recipe for inspiring more of our kids to stay in school.
Neither is shaming a successful celebrity who may have reading challenges. Although Mayweather is fortunate to have a talent that has allowed him to succeed regardless of his educational background, few others will be so lucky. They may find themselves struggling to find gainful employment or to engage in some of the safety precautions that many of us take for granted that involve literacy—like reading instructions on a prescription.
The bottom line is that literacy is no joke, and illiteracy certainly isn’t one. So 50 Cent and Floyd Mayweather should stop treating the subject like one. Instead of targeting each other, maybe they could do something useful, like make a donation to a charity that targets illiteracy.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.