Saturday, May 5, 2007

Reading What They Want (Part 1)


I remember a cool, cloudy Wednesday in July.

We had been dragging a wagon of books around New Brunswick's largest Anglophone public housing neighbourhood. It was part of what we call 'community literacy,' a bringing of literacy resources and support to a whole community. In this instance, we were bringing books for people to borrow.

One of us knelt on a doorstep, talking with a young mom about books for her child. The other stood by the wagon, waiting to carry up the chapter-book box, or the picture-book box, or whichever box was needed. We were at the far end of a cul-de-sac. At the other end, three young men appeared.

They wore Carolina blue and a practiced swagger. They were plainly hip or cool or whatever socially correct males are these days. "Hey!" one called out, not quite de sotto. "Get away from my door." His friends laughed. "We don't want any!" There was more laughter. There was some profanity.

In our work, we have become dense or sturdy enough to weather these displays. When he arrived at the doorstep, his friends sidling off to another stoop, my co-worker asked if he would like to borrow a book.

"Do you have...?" he asked. I could not catch the author or title. Judging by the laughter it created among his friends, I assume it was the witty equivalent of "a playboy magazine."

"No, I don't think so," she replied. More laughter. "But we do have a Tupac book."

"What?"

"The rapper guy? Tupac?" And to me, "Wendell, get out the Tupac book."

A word for the uninitiated: Tupac Shakur was a rapper who passed away in 1996. His books are very popular here. A local bookstore clerk told me they hide them behind the counter to keep them from "walking out of the store." The book we had, Tupac: Resurrection 1971-1996, was particularly coveted that summer.

This young man borrowed the Tupac book, and kept it for some weeks. Word got out, and other young adults approached us, asking, "Do you guys have, like, rapper books?" Throughout that summer and the next our borrowing program developed a respectable adult customer base. We hauled around Pieces to Weight, Biggies' biography, a couple of books on Eminem, a DMX autobiog... Then there was a crack down. A lot of our readers got evicted or jail time.

That's one story about boys and men and access to literacy.

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