Malcolm X, one of the most infamous Black revolutionaries of all time, took advantage of every chance he got to read while he was in prison. According to his autobiography, books are what turned him into a political activist. Books motivated him to question things that normally would not be questioned and to become a leader. A lot of people would argue that a revolutionary act would be attending a march or going on a hunger strike. We equate revolutionary acts to instances such as Greta Thunberg skipping school to raise awareness about climate change or Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man. Of course they are revolutionary acts—they have earned their right to be regarded as such. However, many people would not categorize reading as a revolutionary act. Perhaps it is because there are no negative consequences to reading in the Western world and someone’s life typically would not be on the line if they read. Whatever the reason is, we must reframe our conceptualizations of reading as well as what constitutes as revolutionary.
Though reading is revolutionary, there are limitations. Much of the canon consists of publications from a certain privileged category. This means that when a book is deemed or not deemed worthy of being published to the entire world, it is decided by only one fraction of the world. This fraction of the world has experiences others do not, ways of life that are only practiced by them, and, thus, a way of thinking that merely reflects those particular experiences (there is no such thing as “objective thinking”). Therefore, we do not have full control over what we read. All we can control is what we seek. It is critical to read and amplify stories from people of all races, genders, mental/physical abilities, sexualities, and more of the beautiful markers that make us multidimensional beings.
Between 1740 and 1834 Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, and Virginia all passed and enforced anti-literacy laws, which detailed that Black slaves were prohibited from reading. Punishments were severe and inhumane.
Many BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) are often stereotyped as being “naturally less intelligent” to white people. This is deeply rooted in eugenics, a “science” that justified racism and argued that white people are genetically superior to black people. These workings of white supremacy neglect the fact that intelligence is subjective—that no one can determine what is intelligent and what is not. It also ignores that, because of systemic racism, BIPOC have less access to education and that structures were designed to keep them from successfully climbing up the social ladder.
Every time a BIPOC picks up a book and digests its words, it is, frankly, a big “screw you” to history, to stereotypes, and to racism. It is always revolutionary—whether it is a book with ten pages or ten thousand pages. Whether it is a book with childish imagery or no pictures at all. Reading cultivates agency and serves as a catalyst for establishing one’s self. Self-definition and agency have been stripped from BIPOC by white supremacy so white supremacy can flourish.
When a BIPOC reads, an exercise of agency, white supremacy is challenged and weakened. The BIPOC further removes their ties from white supremacy and is released from its shackles. The first steps toward liberation are taken.
The revolutionary nature of reading extends beyond the experience of BIPOC and is applicable to all individuals. Everybody can undergo a drastic transformation and radicalization from having the lack of knowledge to being equipped with powerful voices. To have an army of words that can turn into action. To be the change we didn’t even know we needed.
Reading is a revolutionary act. When we read, we become.
Sigma Tau Delta
Sigma Tau Delta, International English Honor Society, was founded in 1924 at Dakota Wesleyan University. The Society strives to
- Confer distinction for high achievement in English language and literature in undergraduate, graduate, and professional studies;
- Provide, through its local chapters, cultural stimulation on college campuses and promote interest in literature and the English language in surrounding communities;
- Foster all aspects of the discipline of English, including literature, language, and writing;
- Promote exemplary character and good fellowship among its members;
- Exhibit high standards of academic excellence; and
- Serve society by fostering literacy.
With over 900 active chapters located in the United States and abroad, there are more than 1,000 Faculty Advisors, and approximately 9,000 members inducted annually.
Sigma Tau Delta also recognizes the accomplishments of professional writers who have contributed to the fields of language and literature.