Writing for Their Lives: The Non-School Literacy of California's Urban African American Youth

By Mahiri, Jabari; Sablo, Soraya | The Journal of Negro Education, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Writing for Their Lives: The Non-School Literacy of California's Urban African American Youth


Mahiri, Jabari, Sablo, Soraya, The Journal of Negro Education


This article reports on an investigation into the literacy practices of urban African American youth, many of whom were found to be unmotivated to engage in school-based literacy events because they do not see the relevance of the school curriculum to their lives or, based on prior experiences, they actually fear having to write in school. The voluntary out-of-school literacy practices of two African American high school students are analyzed and their writings critiqued. Conclusions are drawn about the complex and provocative ways these youth use literate behaviors and strategies to gain voice in and make sense of their social worlds. Recommendations are offered for using African American and youth culture as a bridge to writing development.

NON-SCHOOL LITERACY PRACTICES

An emerging line of research has attempted to explore and explain the nature of youth and adult language and literacy experiences that take place in an array of social settings outside of schools. Pioneers in this field include researchers such as Heath (1980, 1982, 1983), Scribner and Cole (1981, 1988), and Street (1984, 1993), whose work has contributed to a framework for viewing literacy in conjunction with specific practices and functions of language use inside particular social contexts. A number of subsequent studies have also operated within and contributed to this framework (Camitta, 1993; Dyson, 1993; Farr, 1994; Goodman & Wilde, 1992; Guerra, 1992; Heath & McLaughlin, 1991, 1993; Lee, 1991, 1993; Mahiri, 1991, 1994a, 1994b; Moss, 1994; Shuman, 1986; Taylor & Dorsey-Gaines, 1988).

Based on the findings of cross-cultural research, Street (1984) argued that literacy is ultimately political and that it has different implications within different sociocultural contexts. As he claimed, "what the particular practices and concepts of reading and writing are for a given society depends upon the context" (p. 1); moreover, these concepts are "already embedded in an ideology and cannot be isolated or treated as 'neutral' or merely 'technical"' (p. 1). These contentions are echoed by Scribner and Cole's (1988) research, conducted among the Vai people of Liberia, which illuminates and critiques the "frailty of the evidence for generalizations about dependency of certain cognitive skills on writing, and.. .the restricted model of the writing process from which hypotheses about cognitive consequences tend to be generated" (p. 58). Their findings challenged the restricted models of writing that are reflected in the formulations of theorists who narrowly define literacy and value school-based literacy as the only authentic type. As they note:

The assumption that logicality is in the text and the text is in the school can lead to a serious underestimation of the cognitive skills involved in non-school, non-essay writing, and reciprocally, to an overestimation of the intellectual skills that the essayist text "necessarily" entails....It tends to promote the notion that writing outside of the school is of little importance and has no significant consequences for the individual. (p. 61) Heath's (1983) research focused on literacy practices in different sociocultural settings in the United States. Heath found that the residents of two different working-class communities-one White and one Black, located only a few miles apart-had "a variety of literate traditions" that were "interwoven in different ways with oral uses of language" (p. 234). She noted, however, that "neither community's ways with the written word [prepared] it for the school's ways" (p. 235).

Shuman's (1986) analysis of the everyday oral and written narratives of workingclass adolescent girls as part of the unofficial school curriculum provides additional understandings of the ways that school and youth cultures both intersect and disconnect. As she argues:

...oral fight stories, written diary accounts, written petitions, letters, and playful forms-are part of a single community's repertoire. …

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