Sunday, May 13, 2012

Counterstories and Voice

In the first chapter to our book, Urban Teens in the Library, Denise Agosto and I argue that in order to successfully provide library services to urban teens, we must move beyond the racial and socioeconomic biases that pervade the popular culture, as well as our own preconceptions (misconceptions) and see them as individuals, not as members of a stereotyped group. The same is true for African American male youth. Many educators, administrators, policymakers, and members of the general public "buy" into stereotypes and interpret cultural and racial differences as a deficit.  This often leads schools to lower their academic expectations of African American male youth, to track them into remedial classes, or to place a disproportionate number in special education. As Chimamanda Adichie explains in her TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

One of the central tenets of Critical Race Theory (CRT) is the concept of voice. CRT research suggests that one of the key ways to shift the lens through which we view African American male youth (i.e. move beyond the single story) is through the use of personal narrative and story.

Sharon Flake’s poem “You Don’t Even Know Me” is a powerful example of a counterstory—a story that challenges the story of the dominant culture. In the poem, performed in a video by students from Roseville High School in Minnesota, a black teen rebukes his teachers, neighbors, and even his friends for making assumptions about his academic ability, his career aspirations, and his behavior based on stereotypes: “You know/ I’ve been wondering lately/ Trying to figure out just how it could be/ That you can see me so often/ And don’t know a thing about me” (2010, p. 4).

We have invited a group of young men from North Carolina Central University, UNC Charlotte, and a local high school to participate in the summit—to tell us their stories and to help us reimagine what libraries should look like and be like in order to truly meet the needs of African American male youth.

How have you involved African American male youth in your library programming and planning? In your research? How have you given them voice? What counterstories did they tell?


  1. Hello,

    I am a first year librarian, and I have spent a great deal of time (physical and mental) this year trying to find different ways to involve my African American males in literacy at our school. One of the easiest ways I worked to involve these specific students was to involve them in the purchasing of books. I allowed any student to be involved in this process, but I specifically sought out some of my African American boys to ask them for specific books they wanted as well as sharing catalogues with them and giving them time to make recommendations.

    We started book clubs at our school this year as well. We had varying levels of success with the book clubs themselves, but I learned a lot of lessons and I am looking forward to using this knowledge in the future. We selected students for these book clubs by looking at test scores, Lexile measurements, and teacher recommendations. Within these constraints, we made an extra effort to invite and encourage students from minority backgrounds to be involved in both the book club for really strong readers and the book clubs for our struggling readers. Once we got the groups of students together, we selected a variety of challenging texts and allowed the students to choose which book they would like to read. We made sure each book was engaging, relevant to real life issues and had characters from diverse backgrounds. We did our best to make sure that these texts were “enabling texts” as defined by Dr. Alfred Tatum.

    One of my favorite programming related forms of outreach has come through a partnership with UNC’s School of Library and Information Science. We had two great volunteers from the Youth Services in a Diverse Society course work with our students on creating a podcast series called Radio LMMS. We had a really diverse student population working in this group, including four African American males who really took the reins in the planning and execution of these podcasts. To me, this was a great example of counter stories, because these students were selecting topics which interested them and telling their own stories. Plus, we are empowering these students with great 21st century skills and giving them ways to be visible within the school community.

    In all honesty, the biggest thing I’ve seen be successful is to help these students develop into lifelong readers. By introducing them to engaging and relevant texts (Yummy by Guy Neiri; Handbook for Boys for Walter Dean Meyers; and We Beat the Street by Samson Davis, Rameck Hunt, and George Jenkins) they get sucked in and come back asking for more. One of our African American male students started the year and would only read books about dogs. I talked him into trying out Yummy, and now he is blazing his way through our collection, reading anything about or by African Americans. Even better, he is recommending these books to his friends (with a little nudging from me) and re-reading them whenever they aren’t checked out!

    I would just like to end by saying that at the core of any of these efforts is a strong relationship with kids. I can’t recommend a book to a student if they don’t know that I like them, trust them and want them to be in our learning commons. I can’t convince them that they should try the podcasting club if they don’t think that I think they are smart and capable. The relationship comes first; after that, everything else is butter.

    Thank you,
    Katy Vance
    Lakewood Montessori Middle School – Durham, NC

  2. As part of Sandra's course on youth services in our increasingly diverse society, I completed a service learning project along with a partner. We worked at the McDougald Terrace branch of the Durham County Public Libraries. This library is located in a public housing project and serves a primarily African-American audience. The collection is almost exclusively children's and young adults' materials, reflecting the library's primary user base. What a great experience this service learning project was for seeing counterstories about young African-Americans, and particularly young African-American boys!

    Our service learning project was composed primarily of science programming, but we also performed other tasks around the library, including giving homework help to the children who visited the library. On my very first day working at McDougald, I remember being shocked that there were two young boys who were very self-motivated to finish their homework before playing on the computers or participating in library programming. They were concerned about their schoolwork and seemed to enjoy it - and their parents were concerned, too. One boy's mother had asked the librarian to make sure that he read books that weren't connected to his schoolwork for at least half an hour a day.

    There were other things that counteracted the "single story" of what it is to be a young African-American boy, too. One boy liked almost nothing better than hauling out the library's careworn chess set and besting the security guard in game after game! And although not all of the kids enjoyed reading, they all really loved hearing stories read aloud - from the two-year-olds to the twelve-year-olds.

    It is so important that we keep the counterstory experiences we may have had in mind when we come up with strategies to help these youth succeed! I was surprised the first time I saw these positive, excited attitudes toward learning and reading; I'll know better than to be surprised next time.

  3. Last year, Sandra and I led a book group with some of my former students, all African American males. We had the boys read texts that we had identified as enabling and respond to those texts through spoken journals and a focus group discussion. In the process, the boys told many counterstories, relating events and characters in the books to their own lives. What I remember most about this project is the eagerness shown by all the boys to tell these stories and to share their thoughts and feelings with us and with each other. As one of the boys put it, "usually, you know, we’ll like to read a book and we want to talk about it with somebody, but then.... They’ll act like they wanna hear about what you’re saying, but they’re just like nahhhh." I remember being struck by that comment - how often do we silence these boys, whether intentionally or not, and what stories could they tell if only someone wanted to listen?