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  • A Search Past Silence: The Literacy of Young Black Men by David E. Kirkland
  • Kyle T. Mays (bio)
David E. Kirkland , A Search Past Silence: The Literacy of Young Black Men
. New York, NY : Teachers College Press , 2013 . vii + 187 pp. ISBN 9780807754078 . Paperback.

In US society, young Black men are denied the right to live as humans with potential. Mainstream discourses about Black men focus on what they cannot do, which has led to their living under the gaze of Whiteness and criminalization—leading, ultimately, from schools to prisons. In A Search Past Silence: The Literacy of Young Black Men, David E. Kirkland, a scholar of language and literacy and urban education, moves us with poetic eloquence from looking at young Black men from a deficit perspective to one of profit, articulating the fact that young Black men not only read and write, but also assert their humanity through a variety of literacy practices.

A Search Past Silence is a 4-year critical urban ethnography that examines how 6 young Black men from Lansing, Michigan—Shawn, Derrick, Jose, Tony, Sheldon, and Keith—engage with multiple forms of literacy. Observing them at school, in their hoods, and in their hangout spots, Kirkland collects a host of data to inform his interpretations. He collects school records, hip hop texts, and journals demonstrating how Black men practice literacy in their everyday worlds. Over 16 chapters, Kirkland disrupts the idea that Black men are illiterate. He offers the reader a theory of Black masculine literacy, which he describes as “a potential—complex, social, cultural, historical, and even political—that, like energy, is ever stored in the human bond” (p. xiv). This brief definition of literacy, as a potential, is at the core of the book. Each chapter explains either an event or an insight into the complex, humanistic expressions of Black male literacy and are broken down into themes—including silence, language, and identity—examining literacy and masculinity and how they play out in the lives of these 6 young Black men. Each of these words serves as a metaphor to explain the literacy practices of young Black men, and as a worldview, in addition to shaping the book thematically. [End Page 123]

For example, Sheldon—one of the students who constantly reads—is often teased by his friends about his manhood. He has a different manhood, “one who recognized and voiced his insecurities instead of refusing them, one who took shit from friends and became sad about it” (p. 111). This understanding of manhood is far different from that which is depicted in mainstream society, where Black men are labeled as criminals, as thugs, as non-human, on track to a prison or the grave. There is an urgent need to understand Black boys in and beyond school and Kirkland provides a way to humanize young Black men through their literacy practices and forces us to confront the idea that young Black men—indeed every person—have the potential for literacy.

Young Black men like Shawn, Derrick, Jose, Sheldon, Tony, and Keith are not disengaged from school; we, as a society, have disengaged them. For educators, teaching literacy to young Black men will require, according to Kirkland, two things. “First it will involve channeling Black male literate potential in classrooms and beyond. It will also involve understanding Black males deeply to acknowledge within pedagogical discourse the meaningful sociologies of Black male literacy practices” (p. xv). The question, then, becomes not ways to improve the test scores of young men or to tell them to change things in their culture; rather, when will we value the lives of young Black men? Though it is tempting to place the young Black men in this study on a pedestal, to bash common core curriculums and standardized tests, and to criticize teachers, A Search Past Silence does not do that. In fact, the book ends with Kirkland visiting Shawn in jail. He does not make these 6 young Black men heroes; he makes them human, still bound up in a cycle of oppression, but, in spite of it all, filled with potential, even while incarcerated.

Silence is the major trope, even a theoretical thread...


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