Haircuts and Harry Potter: Project Sparks Black Boys’ Love of Reading

Barbershop Books is turning a cultural center of the African American community into a hub of literature.

(Photo: Alvin Irby)

Apr 19, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Britni Danielle is a regular contributor to TakePart. She writes on a variety of subjects for Clutch, Ebony, Jet, and others.

Like many boys, Alvin Irby didn’t enjoy reading as a kid. When he was in the third grade, Irby’s mom, a teacher in his hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas, enrolled him in summer school to keep him busy and help improve his reading skills. Irby wasn’t a fan of his mother’s tactics.

“I remember playing outside and my mom dragging me in the house to do reading lessons,” he recalls. “I eventually became proficient at reading, but as a young kid I never really developed a love of reading. It was more of a chore, and in some way, something I hated.”

Irby ended up becoming a teacher like his mom. Now 30 years old, he hopes to inspire a whole new generation of readers: young African American boys. In 2013 he founded Barbershop Books, a New York City–based project that equips barbershops with small reading nooks and a variety of engaging, high-interest texts. The goal: encouraging young customers to read while they wait for a haircut.

Barbershop Books is currently housed in six shops across the Big Apple, and the initiative takes advantage of the status of the black barbershop as a hub of community activity and culture. Irby says the idea came to him after he watched one of his first grade students stare aimlessly out of a barbershop window while he waited for a trim.

“I wished I had a book I could give him so he could practice his reading,” Irby remembers, explaining that the young man also needed to improve his literacy skills, a challenge that plagues far too many boys.

(Photo credit: Alvin Irby)

Indeed, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, among fourth graders, 83 percent of black students, 81 percent of Latinos, and 55 percent of whites read below proficiency level. And for many young people of color, struggling to read has huge consequences.

The Campaign for Grade Level Reading breaks down why it’s so critical for students to master reading by the end of third grade: “Those who do not hit the proficiency mark by then are four times more likely to drop out of high school, research shows. Among those who do not read well, the dropout rates are twice as high for African-American and Hispanic students as they are for white students.”

While Irby can relate to a kid’s desire to play with his friends instead of boning up on his literacy skills, he also knows firsthand that black students don’t always have the opportunity in school to fall in love with literature. When he was a sophomore in high school, his eyes were opened by the difference between regular and more advanced classes.

“I was in a regular English class and we were reading short stories and doing spelling lists, and I was like, ‘Something seems wrong here.’ I didn’t know what a tenth-grade class was supposed to be like, but that wasn’t it,’” he says.

Irby went to his guidance counselor and asked to be switched to a more rigorous class. But when she enrolled him in a pre–advanced placement English course, Irby got a huge shock.

“The first day, I asked, ‘Where did all these white people come from?’ ” he says with a laugh.

Irby’s new class looked nothing like his old, mostly African American one, but that wasn’t the only difference. On the first day, his teacher asked each student to pick two novels to read and analyze for the semester, something he’d never done in his previous English course.

“I looked at the list, and I had never heard of any of those books,” he says, noting that he ended up picking The Great Gatsby and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. After getting over his initial shock, Irby realized he should be reading more—and so should his classmates.

For his junior year science project, Irby surveyed hundreds of his classmates to see how much they read. What he found shocked him.

“Most of my classmates said if it wasn’t required for class, they didn’t read,” he reports. Inspired by his peers’ apathy toward reading for pleasure, Irby ran for student council and created a reading incentive program for his school. “I wrote a grant proposal and went to Barnes & Noble in Little Rock, and they gave me $800 to implement a reading program at my high school,” he says.

Nowadays Irby, who is finishing up a graduate degree in public administration at New York University, believes that Barbershop Books can open up a whole new world for African American boys.

“If children have easy access to books, they’re much more likely to read for fun. If the books are interesting and engaging, they’re more likely to keep reading and read again. The more children read for fun, the better they become at reading. And they better they become at reading, the better they do on reading tests,” he says.

To that end, Irby hopes to expand the number of participating barbershops to 25 by the end of the year. His goal is ambitious; he currently funds the effort with $5,000 won as a finalist in the Fels Public Policy Challenge Competition at the University of Pennsylvania and through donations.

“I’m hoping to begin to change the way boys think about books,” he says. “I hope it will ultimately cultivate a habit of reading.”