Did you know that by the fourth grade, over 80% of America’s black male students are not proficient in reading? Many factors contribute to this alarming figure, such as limited access to engaging and age-friendly reading material, an absence of black men in black boys’ early reading experiences, and the shortcomings of our nation’s school system. Nevertheless, inadequate literacy skills among young black boys generate black men who are not prepared for today’s knowledge-based world.
As a former kindergarten and first grade teacher, Alvin Irby recognized that many black boys don’t see reading as a part of their identity. “I’m developing this theory that a lot of young black males simply don’t associate books with their identity,” Irby told Citylab. “Fathers are missing from a lot of black children’s early reading experiences. There aren’t many black male teachers, either.”
Through Barbershop Books, the educator and social entrepreneur started a revolutionary literacy program with a powerful mission: “To help black boys ages 4-8 identify as readers by connecting books and reading to a male-centered space, and by involving men in boys’ early reading experiences.”
Founded in 2010, the Barbershop Books program is currently initiated in more than 100 barbershops across 17 states. In these shops, bookshelves are set up that feature a curated selection of children’s books that are recommended by young black boys themselves.
“If I pair reading with barbershops, over time, when a kid sees a barbershop, they’ll think about reading,” Irby said. “That really has the potential to overcome this negative self-perception, this idea that black boys don’t read.” To inspire reading, these books are often action-packed, culturally relevant, and have a male protagonist. Furthermore, the barbers play an essential role in encouraging the boys to pick up a book as they wait for their haircut, or even while they’re in the chair.
To be part of the change, Irby published his first children’s book back in 2016. Titled Gross Greg, the hilarious story, told through the perspective of a young black boy, invites readers to laugh out loud about the grossness and simple joys of childhood.
Today, Irby is a nationally recognized speaker and comedian, and is actively ensuring that the Barbershop Books program is continuously growing, with a goal to expand to 200 more barbershops by the end of 2018. His determined efforts even earned him the National Book Foundation’s 2017 Innovations in Reading Prize, resulting in a $10,000 award that will help the program reach new heights.
Want to get involved with this great initiative? Please visit Barbershop Books for more information.