continued Enrollees "from ages 1 to 100" are welcome, he said. "I'm as concerned about the 80-year-old black male as I am about the 8-year-old. I'd be most happy for an 80-year-old to come to my class, and in six weeks they become literate. Everybody they talk to will sign up." And if an infant is exposed to rigorous schooling in the presence of a mentor starting at age one, "he'll never fall behind."
Meredith has made his schools male-only because "black males will not compete with black females because they will always lose." He claims black women will be the ultimate beneficiaries. "For every black male who gets a college degree, 26 females do; we're not helping the black female when we're graduating the 26 females for every black male. Who are those other 25 going to spend their life with or marry?"
Women and nonblacks will participate in his schools, but only as sponsors. Each student must have a sponsor 12 years of age or older, who must attend every session. In San Diego, the library club sponsors were as enthusiastic as the students, Martin said. "James was going after the young kids. Well, the sponsors decided they wanted to enroll, and their average age was around 40."
Meredith's primary goal is to teach how to read, write, and speak standard English. "I don't see nothing wrong with black English," he said with a chuckle. "It's a strong, powerful language. What most people don't realize, though, is that black English is a foreign language.
"Black males, particularly the bright males, usually at nine years old, they decide they're not going to learn anything. Most black males who are illiterate are illiterate by decision. I have one cousin who's a millionaire, and he can't read and write, but he's so smart he can get anyone to do what he needs."
Meredith intends to boost his students' language skills to the point where they can "educate themselves."
To do so, he has written a primer, The First Book of Reading. "This book is designed to teach proper English to persons who speak black English as a first language," the subtitle reads in a stark statement of pedagogical intent. (Most educational messages are couched in less value-charged terms.)
Meredith has published the 128-page primer himself. It is his version of the 1838 McGuffey Reader, widely used by itinerant teachers and families living beyond the reach of any formal schooling for much of the middle to late 19th Century. He colored in the children's faces so they would appear black. (The copyright on the McGuffey, he pointed out, has long since lapsed.) From "ax" to "zebra," words are used to illustrate the letters of the alphabet, which are accompanied by 1838 woodcuts. A series of gradually more challenging reading lessons follows. They tell homilies about wooden huts, cows, chickens, and good and bad little girls and boys, illustrated with antebellum drawings.
In addition to studying their primers, students will take part in spelling bees, oratorical contests, essay-writing contests, and other traditional pursuits. And, of course, they will make regular trips to the library, spending at least three hours there a week.
Meredith intends schooling to supplant ordinary weekend leisure activities. "We don't want people to do anything that day they would normally do, like watch television. To be a super basketball star, they know that they have to spend hours and hours every day on the basketball court. We want them to know they have to spend hours and hours a day with the books if they want to become an intellectual giant."
Meredith said he chose San Diego as his first non-Mississippi site because of the enthusiastic response Martin and her church had to the library clubs. "They must have sold $10,000 of my books," Meredith said. They used Meredith's books and a lecture series he gave as fundraisers for the church, Martin said.
"We're building a new church because we've outgrown the one we're in," she said. Even with two services, it's standing- room-only on Sundays. In addition to the library club, the church runs a soup kitchen once a month and otherwise helps out the needy. Linda Vista also supports five different choirs and sponsors youth soccer and track teams.
"In essence, we do really educate ourselves," Martin said. "You go to school and listen to your teacher, but you come home and do your research. But everybody doesn't have encyclopedias in their homes; everybody doesn't have computers, so what James wants to do is show people you can do this on your own; you can learn at your own pace."
In his home state of Mississippi, Meredith reports, librarians have been enthusiastic about his project. Here in San Diego, public library official Lynn Whitehouse, whose responsibilities include outreach programs, said last week that she hadn't heard of Meredith's library schools. But, she added, "I hope he does come; it fits right in."