A 2022 report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, dubbed the nation’s report card, reported that 33% of Maryland’s eighth graders could not read at a basic level. For Black students, this number was an alarming 46%. Furthermore, 82% of Black students could not read at a proficient level, according to the report.
As reading levels fall, Black Baltimoreans are slipping further away from their ability to liberate themselves. Particularly during a time where socioeconomic barriers, further pronounced by the COVID-19 pandemic, and draconian legislation actively bar Black children from accessing wholesome education.
This story was produced as part of the 2023 POWER Fellowship, a joint project of The Real News Network and Just Media, made possible with the support of the Scripps Howard Fund as well as generous individual donations.
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“Reading is a fundamental human right,” said movement lawyer Justin Hansford. “Wherever people are oppressed or marginalized, they need to have the power of education to be able to organize politically, advance economically, build their own businesses, to be able to do anything—fight against stigma, build strong, healthy families.”
Hansford is a fervent movement lawyer and executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University’s School of Law. He’s been involved in a number of high profile legal efforts, including co-authoring a shadow report—information provided by non-governmental organizations to UN committees—as part of “Ferguson to Geneva,” a delegation consisting of the parents of Michael Brown and Black leaders from St. Louis, Missouri. The report was presented in 2015 before the United Nations Committee Against Torture. He also was part of the leadership team for “Justice for Garvey,” a coalition fighting for the posthumous pardoning of civil rights leader Marcus Garvey, which former President Barack Obama denied.
Currently, Hansford is a member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on People of African Descent, an effort steeped in the centuries-old call for Black freedom on all the continents and that explores various methods for achieving it, including reparations.
To better understand the place literacy and education occupy in the fight for Black liberation, Hansford and I talked about his journey into activism, the cultural complications and implications of being Black and educated, and how technology could shape future generations’ ability to stand up to oppressive systems of governance.
Tinashe Chingarande: What was the defining moment when you decided you wanted to be an activist?
Justin Hansford: I would not be an activist unless I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X at 15. It was a transformative experience for me to see his transformation in real time and to envision myself as someone who could make a difference for my community. It was not assigned to me; I was actually suspended from school for fighting, and I was at home, and my mother had the book. But because it was Malcolm X, it was something I was willing to sit down and read—because he had such an influential profile in the culture. So I really took that to heart, and reading the book transformed my entire life. His passion for Black history inspired me, so I started to read all of these books about Black history in the United States and actually going back to Africa. I read about Marcus Garvey and that started a journey for me. He became one of my heroes, too.
Tinashe: I saw you were involved in some work to encourage former President Obama to posthumously pardon Marcus Garvey.
Justin: Yeah, that’s the central part of my activism. It’s really one of the first things I did as an activist.
Literacy is basically the reason why I’m here today. I was a reader primarily; I was not an activist at 15. I went to a couple of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) conventions, but I was mostly a student of Black history. I studied African American Studies at Howard University. But during a study abroad program in Brazil, where we compared African American and Afro-Brazilian culture, I came across the son of Fred Hampton. Fred Hampton Jr. has done a lot of activism in the same frame as his father. I met him through a classmate. He’s really the one who pushed me to take what I read about and go try to do it myself. He politicized me through activism supporting political prisoners.
There’s a concert called “Black August” that no longer exists, but Erykah Badu, Mos Def [Yasiin Bey], and all these folks from that movement were involved in it. I used to do these concerts where they’d support former Black Panthers who were incarcerated. I did some cop watching work surrounding police brutality issues—we would observe police stops and record them to report if we saw anything that was abusive. The group that I did my activism with is called Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.
Tinashe: I feel like the term ‘activist’ has become relatively ambiguous, given how social media and the 2020 George Floyd protests changed what activism looks like. From what you’ve done so far and have been involved in, what are the things that make the activism experience unique?
Justin: It’s the action part. There’s a distinction between organizers and activists. Organizers are people who are in the community having meetings, setting up protests, raising money, maybe taking petitions to the legislators, or helping to put together events.
Activists, in theory, don’t have to do all that. It’s much more of an umbrella term.
The question is: If someone just goes on Twitter [X] and tweets about their outrage, does that make them an activist? Can you really be an activist without actually doing the organizing? That’s a question that started to emerge in 2014 following the death of Michael Brown.
I personally am conflicted about it. If you have enough power to topple the government through stories you’re telling on social media, then that is activism. You can be a Twitter activist; if you can create change through the mechanism of storytelling, that can also be included in activism. Activism is anything that you do to create political change. If you are a driver of political change, you’re an activist.
I would consider myself an activist lawyer. We call it “movement lawyering.” I am a movement lawyer, but I represent the movement. I have a political outcome I want. I work with campaigns, individuals, organizers, or coalitions of organizations. I use the law as a tool for my activism.
Tinashe: When looking at US history, education has been a point of convergence for legislators and activists, from Brown v. Board of Education, to the emergence and approval of African American studies curricula, to the creation of affirmative action, even though it didn’t benefit as many Black people. Now that we’re flipping from a culture where legislative efforts helped encourage and support Black people who wanted to attain an education to active attacks against Black literacy through the underfunding of school districts and manipulating of curricula, what do you have to say about that?
Justin: There is an attack on Black literacy. From my own experience, I was a lot more likely to read and study things that were relevant and interesting to me—Black history and Black studies. If you’re wiping those things off of the curriculum, you are disincentivizing me from studying as a youth. There’s already a thing in Black culture that you’re “acting white” if you study, so this just compounds the already-existing disincentives for Black youth to read and study as much as they can.
I go back to my personal history; I was already one of those kids that liked to read, and I was beat up for “acting white” and all these different things. But once I started reading about Malcolm X and being more militant… some of the kids who used to bully me for reading other stuff—they saw me reading Malcolm X and were not going to bully me for that. Because if you’re reading something pro-Black, then you’re not “acting white”; it becomes cool to do your reading. And what some politicians are doing is they’re removing that. Now those kids can say, “If you’re going to school and you’re reading, and they’re taking all the Black stuff out, then you must be reading the white stuff.” It sounds silly when you talk about it.
Tinashe: I actually think that holds water!
Justin: It is an anti-literacy campaign to take Black things out of the curriculum, because you remove an incentive for kids who may not care about just reading, but who do care about themselves and their people, and reading is the mechanism for that. It makes the thing in our culture about—the “You’re reading white stuff, you must be selling out” thing—relevant. It’s a two-pronged attack.
Tinashe: Why do you think there’s this assumption in the Black community that when you align yourself with education it’s seen as white? How did we go from the Black Power and Civil Rights movements necessitating “education for liberation” to now— if you’re an avid reader you’re called an “oreo,” a derogatory term for Black people who have forsaken their Black values and traditions for “white affectations?”
Justin: I don’t know how we made that journey. But, I believe that if you were at an all-Black school with all-Black teachers and they were the ones telling you to read for empowerment, it was a much different conversation than when you got integrated into a majority-white school and the readers and high achievers got applause from white teachers and the establishment, and the Black kids went on to transition out of the Black community. In the past, that achievement did not mean you could get out of the Black community. These are my instincts.
Tinashe: So in an environment where online platforms like The Shade Room and Baller Alert are huge fixtures in the Black community, what impact does this have on Black people’s education when people believed the lies on gossip sites—like in the case of rapper Megan thee Stallion’s shooting—more than actual reporting being done by court reporters? What’s your take on how social media impacts Black literacy because it’s not just young people but older people also living in a knowledge gutter?
Justin: The problem with newspapers is that they’re going to give you a certain lens, a lens that is either right-wing or left-wing in the US, and even abroad they’re going to give a lens of the establishment and the official narrative. There’s always a gap between that and the views of young people and grassroots organizations.
If you go to The Washington Post, they’re also going to give you a specific view. The New York Times and Fox News are giving you a certain view.
But, definitely, if you’re watching Shaderoom to get your news I’d say don’t do that—these online platforms can build on conspiracy theories. But in terms of media literacy, I’ve been taught to read newspapers to know what the official narrative is. They’re making the mainstream narrative, but don’t read that thinking that that is the whole truth.
Tinashe: During your six years at Howard, what trends have you seen in terms of the kind of knowledge your students come with?
Justin: I think that there’s been a fall-off. I was talking with a friend about knowledge of Black history and knowledge of the fairness of having reparations, and there’s a huge gap in knowledge about what happened to us as a people. But it’s not that it’s just a blank slate; what was filling in those gaps were talking points from the right wing. It’s not even a blank slate of ignorance— in some cases, that would be better. Instead, what we actually have is the indoctrination of misinformation and lies. People have absorbed bad talking points that we have to undo.
Tinashe: Given that we live in an anti-intellectual climate, how do you make your talking points translate to the average Black person? Because I think there’s a divide in the Black community between people who theorize their experiences compared to those whose perception of their surroundings is rooted solely on what they physically experienced?
Justin: You’re right. But I think it’s more about being politicized than intellectualized. When I was young, I had to see that the outcomes taking place in the world were not just because some people worked hard and were rich, whereas others didn’t work hard and weren’t rich. I had to see political action resulting in certain outcomes. Being politicized was the transition.
Tinashe: Where do you think activism is headed with this next generation? Gen-alpha, I think they’re called.
Justin: I think it’s going to be driven by technology a lot. I tend to think that because more people are living online, as opposed to in person, it’s possible that activism online will make a leap forward.
Tinashe: Would you still say the same if we think about how misinformation and disinformation are rife online and people are likelier to be deceived?
Justin: People are being deceived online and offline, but I think that online literacy will improve. The way people interact with the written word—people tend to give it more gravitas because they know someone took the time to write it and edit it. I think people are starting to understand that you need to take what you hear from a random meme with the same grain of salt that you would with what you hear from a random person. I think literacy is going to improve and it won’t be as easy to mislead people in the future. When TVs were first invented, people were scared of television and thought it was going to destroy the world.
Tinashe: What do you think activism will look like when studies are showing rapidly declining reading scores and we have a rising generation of literally undereducated children?
Justin: You would hope that with technology advancing, people would be able to catch up and get back on track. But from my experience traveling around the world, people still do political activism.
Tinashe: Even in the absence of literacy?
Justin: Yes, even our own people—we had slave uprisings even though it was illegal for us to read. Illiteracy doesn’t preclude you from activism. The danger is that you can be more easily manipulated. So if you don’t have that ability for critical thinking, you get stuff like “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.”
Justin: …because superstition comes in when you don’t have as much education.
Tinashe: So are you saying that the key to effective activism would be populism supported by the critical thinking that education gives you?
Justin: Yes! And without that you get authoritarianism.
Tinashe: And so we should all learn to read and write so we’re not easily manipulated?
Justin: That’s what George Orwell would tell us.
This interview has been edited for clarity, length and style.