Some time ago, a friend and I were discussing what it might be like to lack the ability to read and write. How many people today lack the wherewithal to decipher the black squiggly lines and put meaning to the words? Many of us cannot remember a time before we couldn’t read.
For a moment, place yourself in a foreign country that displays signs, names of streets, buildings and warnings, of which none are in English. How will you find your way around or locate some place to eat or sleep?
Step for a time into the shoes of those whose rights were stolen, particularly the right to read. How would you feel? Frustrated? Powerless?
Be thankful that you have the ability to read and understand the essays edited by Stephanie Stokes Oliver and walk in the footsteps of those who suffered, struggled and overcame great difficulty to learn something you were given before you could miss it, knowledge of the written word.
Stephanie Stokes Oliver presents the book in three parts with writers of the various time periods; The Peril (1800-1900), The Power (1900-1968) and The Pleasure (1968-2017). This essay anthology follows the journeys of a multitude of African-Americans throughout history from Frederick Douglass to former president Barrack Obama on the importance of the ability to read and write. As you read each essay, you see how notable people lived their lives with a burning passion, the voracious need to decipher the written word, to express themselves in writing, to make a better life for themselves.
In The Peril, the reader will meet people like Solomon Northup. In his memoir, 12 Years as a Slave, Mr. Northup writes of his desperation to get a letter to a dear friend. He painstakingly boiled white maple bark to create the ink and plucked the wing of duck to use as the pen.
Did the letter reach its intended reader? You will have to read Black Ink to learn the answer.
The largest portion of essays are in The Power, a time period which includes comments from people like Maya Angelou. Angelou credits Ms. Flowers, who gave her lessons in life starting with reading, in part for her ability to read. They shared classic books, such as A Tale of Two Cities, and after a time Ms. Flowers gave her a book of poetry for which Angelou memorized a poem she could share, strengthening her reading skills. Why was this time period so filled with power of the written word?
In The Pleasure section, we hear about Roxane Gay* who recalls what drove her passion of reading was the desire to read the Sweet Valley High series. “I waited for new Sweet Valley High books the way other kids waited for new comics or movie releases.” What was so compelling about this series for Roxane Gay? To learn what the draw was behind this serialized storyline, read Black Ink.
My need to read this title came from the 2018 Read Harder Challenge from BookRiot.com as it fulfilled the challenge of reading an essay anthology. In my opinion, the passion, the need and the love of reading from the various time periods through the decades are at the heart of these stories. Oliver’s final summary is succinct and it drives home an important lesson for all, “Reading matters. Writing matters. People matter.” Reading is an inalienable right for everyone.
*Roxanne Gay is a regular contributor to the New York Times and released a memoir last year called Hunger.
Review by Micah, St Matthews Branch