on Reading

If you want to hide something from a black man, put it in a book.

Take offense? You shouldn’t. When was the last time you picked up something other than a light bill? Quick survey: if you could choose right now between (a) watching a 10 minute video of some girl Gaza-boxing some other girl and (b) reading a book, which would you choose?

I thought so.

The ugly truth is that the average Jamaican (read: black person; read: anybody under 30) doesn’t care about books as much they used to. I’m not sure they ever did. But with the advent of smart(er than people)phones and tablets and lolspeak and text language, reading is something we don’t take the time to do much of these days.

Children in high schools will do anything to get out of a reading assignment. People in universities find it hard to read for their degree. Grown women won’t read anything longer than a dimestore paperback romance novel. Grown men won’t read anything longer than the writing on a girl’s T-shirt.

Yeah. The “writing”.

Reading in Jamaica has become anathema. It has become the symbol of the loser, the lame one, the geek (and not the swag-kind, either). Reading is uncool and frowned upon in most social circles. Why?

Because reading is hard. Not because people are dumb, but because people are lazy. We live in a world of instant gratification. Laughing out loud has been condensed to three letters. We are consumed with fitting the most amount of information into the least possible space, so that we can spend the shortest amount of time reading it. Twitter limits you to 140 characters. Tumblrs are specially designed to be free from the clutter of words. Our brains are being conditioned to hate any piece of writing longer than a sentence.

I don’t know when it started, or who it started with, but it’s an epidemic that is wildly spiralling. Once upon a time, you had to read, or people would stick you in a corner with a pointy hat. These days, it is the epitome of cool to dismiss books with a casual “N***, I don’t read.” Our literacy rates plummet and all we do is blame white people for everything that’s happened since slavery.

If you’re going to hide behind history and shake the stick that says ‘it’s not our fault; the white man conditioned us this way’ then congratulations, I’m sure you probably read that somewhere. But you’re still flogging a dead horse. You’re denigrating the achievements of all those other black people who did something with their lives. Just because you sit at home watching cat videos all day and collecting welfare cheques (oh, I went there) does not mean there aren’t ambitious black folks out there winning prizes and achieving things despite book taxes and bad racist jokes.

Now, of course you have the one or two government officials who, in a bid to keep power in the hands of a few, start to tax printed material. Because they’re generally the rule, and not the exception. This kind of move steps on the layman who wants to buy his twelve year old daughter a copy of Great Expectations so that she will know enough not to settle for this kind of bogus democracy. But since they need to perpetuate the stereotype of black men not reading (because that’s what America thinks, y’all) they have to make books too expensive for those uppitty Negros who think they actually have a right to literacy.

But the truth is, we are all part of the problem. Every time we send ‘u’ an SMS; every time we read the Cliffnotes version instead of the actual thing; every time we ignore written instructions simply because our brain skips over the words – we are moving closer to the day when all the white folk start putting their valuables in books. 12% of adults in this country cannot write or understand a paragraph about their own lives. 12%.

And what is being done about it? Children are still leaving primary school without basic reading and writing skills. Universities are still offering courses in remedial English. 50 years after Independence we’re still falling prey to jokes about illiteracy, criminal activities and KFC.

Let’s at least try to make it harder for them to make fun of us, yeah?