Illiteracy to Literature in the Enlightened South

OXFORD, MISSISSIPPI

Known as the home of Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner, the University of Mississippi, and one of the finest independent book stores in the nation, Square Books, it came as a shock to learn Lafayette County’s illiteracy level amongst adults equals that of the national average – dead even at 23%.

And so began a search for answers.

One of the first things that catches your eye in Oxford is that folks from all walks of life are serious about the arts. From a rich and illustrious tradition of Hill Country Blues to a celebration of outsider art to the local Arts Council which hosts and funds a revolving door of local events to the three Square Book establishments on Oxford Square, there seem to be multiple celebrations of the arts every day and night of the week.

One of these Oxford institutions is billed as Thacker Mountain Radio – a weekly variety show of music and literature – held via Square Books every Thursday night stringing back to 1979. The show is live and the public are welcome and for those who can’t make it in person, there’s the radio.  Thacker Mountain is broadcast on both “Rebel Radio” and Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

To take a seat at Thacker Mountain is to get into the groove of the local arts scene. The oversized windows at Off Square Books are opened up and those who don’t get seats pour out into the town’s Square. The night that I caught Thacker Mountain through the lens of my camera was the night I met authors Jessica B. Harris and Roy Blount Jr. Their advice for the public at large – “You’ve got to read” – a mantra which led me to the local Literacy Council.

Nicole Bass is an “Americaore Vista” which is a title and branch of the Volunteers and Service to America. While the council spends most of their time dealing with “preventative” measures – working with children – I thought it would be interesting to tag along for the first lesson of an adult, by the name of Sherry Crocker.

Sherry is in her late thirties and has two young children.  She wants to break the cycle of illiteracy in her family and has asked the Literacy Council for help. According to Sherry, she’s taking lessons to “help [her] four year old with homework” as well as to “read [the notes] he brings home from school.”

The idea of taking that first step into a first lesson in reading is a daunting prospect for many adults who in so doing are forced to acknowledge they don’t know how to read. There’s a stigma attached to both being unable to read as well as the fact a healthy percentage of our nation cannot read, like unto a secret.  A secret that isn’t talked about in polite society – a secret that as painful as it might be, needs to be brought out into the open and turned around and discussed.

The lesson for Sherry was intense and at times difficult. She was not able to pronounce many consonants, but she tried and although visibly embarrassed, was determined not to give up. When asked why it might be scary for folks around the nation to take the bold step that she took this day, Sherry, full of confidence on having completed her very first lesson, beamed, “They’re just scared – but me – I’m not scared at all – I’m enjoying … learning how to read.”

From the basic grasp of consonants to the next step up the ladder of literacy – actually craving the concept of literature – I found the idea of introducing a literary mantra in the epicenter of what some folks refer to as the “Enlightened South” an interesting prospect.  

David Swider and Michael Bible are affable and giddy and very much sincere about literature.  I joined the duo for a beer at the Square’s greasy spoon, Ajax, to talk shop about the region before sitting down for an interview back on their work-turf of Square Books.  Their energy plays off each other when they talk, turning every conversation into a brainstorming session of what would be cool or what could work out literary-wise for the literary journal, Kitty Snacks.  At ages 25 and 28, respectively, David and Michael are relatively young to undertake the launch of a literary magazine – but this is their point. They want to make the rather lofty idea of literature a possibility for folks of all ages by offering it to the public as bite sized snacks.

According to Michael Bible, Mississippi “is the fattest, poorest, dumbest state in the country – that is full of geniuses.  You have people that can’t read right next to people that win Nobel Prizes – and it’s this weird kind of dichotomy that works to both illuminate that kind of difference but also recently, bring it together.”

“The book is kind of a hard commodity right now,” explains Wayne Andrews, Executive Director of the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, who immediately saw the potential for the journal and helped to get it published.  While “publishers [are] not taking risks on new authors [nor] publishing diverse works, we’re finding new ways to do it.” According to Mr. Andrews, quarterly publications like Kitty Snacks are “leading [people] down the path to discover a magazine and then hopefully discover a book.”

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Filed under Americana, Community Project, Literary Reverie, On CNN

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