Literacy is as much ethereal as it is material. That is because reading and writing are acts of knowing that encompass creativity, choice, and self-expression. To understand literacy is to understand cultural-historical reality. Societies, including our own, do not give the gift of literacy to all. As a former literacy worker in the Caribbean, Africa, and in North America, I can attest to the reality of this statement.
For the past 30 years I have written and spoken about the sorrow that is illiteracy. I have also challenged my students to think of literacy and pedagogy in activist terms. Fighting Prosaic Messages gives voice to the millions of poor and working-class Americans, past and present, who struggle to be literate.
I used family literacies to challenge readers to question why so many Americans do not express themselves in reading and in writing. The pattern of literacy across four generations of my relatives has been obstruction. My immigrant grandmother never received fair and just acknowledgment of her literacies from the mill owners she worked for in Lawrence, Massachusetts. My father could read and write yet still failed in school. I turned my back on books until I graduated. Tragically my son’s voice was nearly extinguished in school. The real power of literacy, a way to understand experience, was not given freely to us.
This book is about how we can make the gift of literacy more available to all.
–Henry C. Amoroso, Jr.
A Note to the Reader
PART I. LITERACY AND LEARNING IN THE LIVES OF A SICILIAN-AMERICAN FAMILY
Chapter 1. The Power of Literacy Histories: An Essay
SECTION I. ROSESPEAKS
Chapter 2. Lawrence
Chapter 3. New York City
Chapter 4. The North End
SECTION II. FATHERSANDSONS
Chapter 5. The Education of an Immigrant’s Son
Chapter 6. A Working-Class Education
Chapter 7. Same, Only Different
PART II. CRITICAL ESSAYS ON THE CAUSES OF LITERACY FAILURE
Chapter 8. Keeping History Alive
Chapter 9. The Role of Desire in Literacy
Chapter 10. Reclaiming the Past
Chapter 11. Power and Pedagogy
Chapter 12. Rehumanizing Literacy Learning
About the Author
Table of “Developments”
Table of Historical “Clippings”
- Mary Marcy, “Battle for Bread at Lawrence” (1912)
- Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race (1916)
- Joe Hill, “The Rebel Girl” (1915)
- Fletcher B. Dressler, “Fewer Men Teachers” (1912)
- Edwin Arlington Robinson, “Reuben Bright” (1897)
- George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion (1912)
- W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
- Richard C. Phillips, “The Negro of the Congo, West Africa” (1875)
- Pietro di Donato, Christ in Concrete (1939)
- Meet Rose Kennedy
- Noam Chomsky, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965)
Table of “In Their Own Words”
- Elizabeth Gurley Flynn
- Maria Montessori
- Edward Lee Thorndike
- Jane Addams
- Francis W. Parker
- John Dewey
- Lewis Hine
- Theodore Dreiser
- Emma Goldman
Fighting Prosaic Messages addresses painful issues in American education. The first section of Part I begins the story of Rose, a Sicilian immigrant, and traces the lives of three generations of her family in and out of school (see Figure 1). The first three chapters of the “Rose Speaks” trilogy concerns the conflicts that she faces adjusting to new rules and social institutions. Her responses to the challenges posed by her new country illuminate her critical intelligence and serve as the basis for conversations with activists like Emma Goldman and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who fought passionately to give voices to the illiterate. In the second section of Part I,the story shifts from the metaphorical to Rose’s son’s failings in Depression-era schools and to her grandson’s search for self-expression. Part I ends with a detailed account of how schooling not only failed to acknowledge her great-grandson’s self-taught literacies but nearly stifled them altogether. The essays in Part II expand the understanding of the human side of failure.
Although the book opens lyrically, it quickly manifests the sense of impending doom that accompanies an industrial metaphor out of control. Characters, however strong-willed, are defenseless. Dialogues with real and imagined characters remind readers that the right to voice one’s thoughts is crucial for any viable notion of democracy and should lead to a deeper understanding of what it is to be human. Our stories bearwitness to the failure of schools to espouse these goals.
Readers learn the fate of Rose and her family, who struggle with assimilation, poverty, language barriers, and meager parental education. Anyone who has ever suffered injustice will find much with which to sympathize in this book. The issues that the essays address—the political extensities of literacy, conformity vs. self-expression, and understanding literacy as a response to moral crises—are empowering. Even so, the obstructions that Rose and her family face as they seek education—stereotyping, superficiality, fixed answers—persist in schools to this day, hence the need to understand the cultural and historical forces that gave rise to and still perpetuate these barriers.
Despite the fact that Fighting Prosaic Messageshas many subtexts—immigration, intellectual history, intergenerational contexts—its primary goal is to affirm a vision of literacy as truth telling. I hope that its message will appeal to anyone who educates or seeks education.
—Henry C. Amoroso Jr.