‘Quilt’ gives ways to discover literacy

Joseph Stanonik

Joanne Dowdy, an associate professor in the College of Education, said literacy is much more than just the ability to read and write. Literacy is in every aspect of our lives.

“Literacy isn’t just found in the classroom,” Dowdy said. “Literacy can be found all around us.”

A mother on welfare, for example, may be perceived as lazy and illiterate. Dowdy claims, however, that even someone in that situation has specialized area of knowledge in her and her child’s life.

In April, Dowdy’s fourth book, Readers of the Quilt: Essays of Being Black, Female and Literate, will hit the bookshelves. Quilt is a collection of essays addressing issues of black women’s literacy and how it has developed and shaped our society.

The quilt mentioned in the title refers to messages slaves used to coordinate their escape to the north.

“It was used in the Underground Railroad. In some places, messages would be stitched into the quilt,” Dowdy said.

Messages and codes were also spread by song, word of mouth and stories, Dowdy said. She said they helped blacks survive by teaching generations of slaves the boundaries of a white-dominated society.

Quilt features 12 writers who discuss finding literacy in both their professional and personal lives. The majority of the writers came from Dowdy’s Black Women and Literacy class from Fall 2002.

“In the process of teaching, we discussed how literacy can be found in other places,” Dowdy said. “The students began to look in their lives and figure out what constitutes literacy.”

Leonie Smith, a graduate research assistant in her last semester of course work, was one of the students who took the opportunity to express her own form of literacy. Her chapter, “To be a Black Female and Literate: A Journey in Education and Alienation,” chronicles her journey as the youngest of 11 children in the Caribbean nation of Antigua to the graduate school.

Smith said students can find inspiration from Quilt.

“It shows how black women have triumphed over obstacles in their path to become educated,” Smith said. “It offers a sense of hope that if you want something bad enough you can achieve it.”

Dowdy said Quilt offers a safe place for writers to express themselves.

“It’s safe because it was edited by a black woman, and I have invited black women to unpack their experiences without being checked by an editor,” Dowdy said. “I told them to be as open as you are willing to be.”

Sandra Golden, project director for GED scholars’ initiative with the Ohio Literacy, discusses that issue in her chapter, “Black and on Welfare: What you don’t know about single-parent women.”

“Society has many negative stigmas among certain groups of people,” Golden said. “We need to eliminate the stigmas and look at the individual.”

Golden’s chapter was developed out of conducting interviews she had with single black mothers on welfare and what they felt about the welfare system. While conducting these interviews, she discovered several forms of literacy not recognized by society. She also discusses the support system of family, friends, employers, organizations and teachers who help black women become literate and successful.

Contact College of Education reporter Joseph Stanonik at [email protected].