Street Scripts: African American Youth Writing about Crime and Violence

Article excerpt

While doing research in two San Francisco Bay Area high schools on ways to use African American youth culture as a bridge to writing development, I also encountered provocative writings of African American youth created for their own purposes. Many of their texts revealed insightful, personal perspectives on crime and violence that counterpoise the way these youth are portrayed in politics and the media. I call these writings "street scripts" for two reasons. First, though in most cases they were not actually created on the streets, their themes and images resonate authentic youth perceptions and experiences of being young, urban, and black. The authors already know they are prime(d) candidates for the juvenile justice system. They see that the texts of their lives have already been inscribed with violence and crime. The abiding question is: How can these scripts be changed? In our concern over prospects of "losing a generation," we need to know more about the generation we are losing. We need to know how their particular voices and choices reflect their own apprehension - both their anxiety and their understanding - of their conditions. We can glimpse this knowledge in the array of scripts that these youth compose and enact.

The second reason for calling these writings "scripts" is to create conceptual space for a critique of the various texts that these youth produce, perform, and publish. To really hear their voices, we have to tune into the actual mediums and contexts that they appropriate for expression. Miriam Camitta suggests that these kinds of written expressions, which are within the framework of adolescent culture and social organization, can be called "vernacular writing" because they are "traditional and indigenous to the diverse cultural processes of communities as distinguished from the uniform, inflexible standards of institutions" (1993: 229). She sees vernacular writing as literate behavior through which adolescents look for meaning and truth (p. 242). In her study of African American youth in Philadelphia, she shows how these adolescents attempted to "act on experience by writing it," to "control, shape, and manipulate its properties - time, space, and inhabitants - through texts and their use" (p. 240). Camitta argues that the youth she studied perceived that writing for their own purposes and in their own mediums could be a powerful way to capture and even to alter their experiences in meaningful ways (p. 242).

I appreciate Camitta's designation and description of vernacular writing, but I use the term "voluntary writing" - writing created for their own purposes beyond school - for the work of the youth that I present in this article because some of this work is not written in black vernacular. Also, some of this work is not usually considered to be writing at all in a traditional sense of inscribing words on paper. Yet, I argue that the texts or scripts that these youth compose are in fact "writings" of their perceptions and experiences that reflect significant practices of literacy. So, a notion of voluntary writing of street scripts is used to frame the forms and functions of the work of these youth.

I am cautious not to overemphasize the ultimate power or transformative possibilities of this writing (or any writing) outside of considerations of other sociocultural forces. As J. Elspeth Stuckey cogently argues in The Violence of Literacy (1991: viii), literacy itself is not the solution; it lies rather in economic enfranchisement. She shows how conceptions and practices of literacy in the United States specifically, and in Western culture generally, essentially perpetuate social injustices by deflecting focus from the real issues of economic and social opportunity, while simultaneously being used as a key mechanism for the maintenance of economic and social advantage. According to Stuckey,

literacy is a function of culture, social experience, and sanction. Literacy education begins in the ideas of the socially and economically dominant class and it takes the forms of socially acceptable subjects, stylistically permissible forms, ranges of difference or deviance, baselines of gratification (p. …

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