For much of my young adult life, I had a secret. A secret that carried a lot of shame and disappointment. As a person that prided myself on my writing and reading ability from a young age, the circumstances of my secret was devastating. For many years I couldn’t speak of it, even if I was alone. After years of hiding, I can now string together the words with strength: I never graduated from high school. I’m not proud of it, but it is a fact of my existence that I’m no longer interested in hiding.
At the time, I felt that this one fact marked me as undesirable. The stereotype that dropouts are ignorant, lazy, or unintelligent is the result of a huge social blindspot concerning education in this country. For me, the absence of that 11’ by 14’ piece of paper made my value delicate, like the fickle flame of a birthday candle; I feared for the moment the world would snuff me out. As the child of a long line of high school dropouts, I was naive in thinking that I would not be one. I thought that if I worked hard maybe I would have a chance at a life outside anything I knew. But like so many others, I didn’t have the privilege of an uninterrupted education. The opportunities of my youth seemed to crumble before me and I gave up on my childhood dreams of college or authorship. After wasting many years working a dead-end job and feeling sorry for myself, I managed to get an equivalency and start community college. I am now 24 years old and a current junior transfer at Cal. I worked hard to bring what was essentially an eighth grade education up to college level. As I reach new heights I never thought possible, I have allowed my vision to turn toward long-abandoned possibilities. However, even with so many new opportunities at my disposal, I am finding that there seems to be little space in the literary community for people like me.
Part of the issue is visibility. There is a huge social stigma associated with poverty and lack of education. Most people aren’t exactly lining up to declare that they didn’t graduate high school, or that they struggle to read and write. Even when someone is willing to admit it, as soon as they enter the literary world they become tokenized. Impoverished or uneducated folx only seem to get published when their stories serve as “poverty porn” for the privileged. If you try to search for authors who were dropouts, you’ll find the same small list over and over again, many of those included are far from being modern authors. This leads me to believe that either we are hiding, or that we are simply not being included. It’s a real restriction on access and creativity when people like me only seem to be published when our pain and struggle can be used as entertainment. Our own stories are fed to us as extraordinary, as if lack of education is not a common experience.
In fact, despite the general consensus that Western countries don’t have these problems, experiences like mine are fairly common. According to the most recent adult literacy data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, 14% of Americans have below basic literacy level and 29% have only a basic literacy level. That means that more than 140 million Americans are struggling with literacy. Additionally, 15% (or more than 49 million) Americans do not complete high school. And what is interesting about these numbers is that they are not improving; there is actually a downward trend in US literacy levels. And of course those from historically marginalized communities are over-represented in this data because class stratification is invariably linked to racial discrimination. If the literary community is at all interested in true inclusivity, then the understanding and resources afforded to folx from lower socioeconomic and educationally underprivileged backgrounds needs to extend beyond objectification and tokenization. In a country where a quality and uninterrupted education is still a privilege, we cannot afford to exclude uplifting these voices in our push for a more representative literary world.
You might be wondering how I am advocating for illiterate or uneducated people to write books if they don’t have writing skills. I think this is a limited and stagnant view of a large part of the population. It erases the realities of those of us who have struggled to rectify the mistakes of a defunct education system. It erases the possibilities of those who are self-taught. And it restricts those who only need a little help and understanding to get their work up to “standard”.
Education is a constant process; we must allow those without education to see that spaces are available to them, or we undercut the possibilities of their educational journeys. Representation and inclusivity are huge buzzwords, including in the literary community, but as a member of an under-served community I am hoping that these are more than just words. It is not enough to say that you’re inclusive. True inclusivity requires action. If we are interested in making marginalized communities visible in literature, we must look at how we as a community contribute to inequity. We must eradicate the air of superiority that at times has marred the literary world. We mustn’t be pretentious in our critiques; after all, not all of us were raised on classics.
And as more publishing houses are branding themselves as inclusive, we must have a keener eye. If publishers are truly pushing for more diversity and representation of marginalized voices, they must look at how they perpetuate barriers of exclusivity. This means looking at work with a new lens, appreciating that the inequities of our society have created unique voices that are often under-served. There is a lot of good writing ignored for lack of technical skill. I’m not saying we should lower our expectations, but that we must take a hard look at how our standards can be adjusted in light of the harsh realities of our society. As a community that thrives on creativity and innovation, what are we missing out on when we refuse to open doors?
— Seyo Talbert, Fall 2019 Staff