Okay, a couple of people have come to me about The Cassandra Cookbook stating that the word “Digress” is overused. Others complain about detailed descriptions. While I’m pretty understanding about constructive criticism and I’m a professional, I can’t change the subject when it comes to literacy issues I see among people of color.
I live in the South Bronx, an area where six in ten Black men and five out of ten Black women don’t graduate high school. Among Latinos, the numbers are worse. Eight in ten men and six out of ten women don’t make it to the June march to get their High School diplomas. At the most, people in my neighborhood have a ninth grade education max. It’s scary where I live, most adults Black or Hispanic, some of them born and raised here can’t do things a ninth grader in other parts of the city are supposed to be able to do like fill out a job application (a fourth grade document) or struggle to read the newspaper (a sixth grade document). What’s worse is I watch people in my neighborhood and they can’t express themselves verbally in social situations. A lot of times they substitute profanity for the words they don’t know how to use. Words like Nigger, Fuck, Shit Motherfucker, bitch, ho, and asshole, are conjugated like all purpose verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. I’d hate to see what their writing is like if this is how they talk.
I understand why people talk like this; it’s not about toughness or street culture. Most African-Americans today like the slaves before them aren’t educated enough to understand how to use words and are forced to use the few the words they pick up like a dialect so they can communicate with others. Outside of the school doors, there aren’t many opportunities to learn new words nowadays. Over the past ten years literature has practically disappeared from the South Bronx. The magazine shops and newsstands on Fordham Road, Third Avenue and Yankee Stadium are gone or down to a few hip-hop titles; Outside of the Daily News and the Post at the bodega I can’t find anything to read. Currently there are no bookstores in the South Bronx; (the last bookstore in the borough closed in 2007) and very few book vendors who sell quality literature.
So the reason why I use words like digress in my writing is to give my readers an opportunity to learn some new words while they read. The reason I use these words repeatedly is to give my readers an opportunity to reinforce what they’ve learned. I want the new words they learn to stay with them, and the best way to retain what a reader has learned is repetition.
The reason I use detailed descriptions is to give my readers the ability to use their imaginations. Authors like Jane Austen and Dickens do this all the time. The more details, the clearer picture a person has in their mind of what they're seeing. A person twenty years from now probably won't know what an Escalade is, or what a neighborhood like DUMBO looks like unless I clearly describe it to them . I want the imagery in the books I write to remain fresh so a future reader sees the exact same things a reader from today would see if they read the book.
Words like digress (an eleventh grade word) regularly appear on tests like the SAT, TABE (a simple exam given at employment services and job training programs that assesses basic literacy) GED, and Civil Service exams. Sadly, more and more inner city residents are failing the TABE test and the GED exam (Both measures of an eighth grade education) nowadays than ever. Many can’t score well on the SAT or even pass the Civil Service Exams. Why are they failing? The lack of exposure to literature and the inability to expand their vocabularies.
Having worked in job readiness and with the hardest to place (ex-offenders, dropouts,) I understand that one ingredient in the recipe for success is being well-read in addition to being well educated. The more words a reader has in their vocabulary the more opportunities they’ll have at improving the quality of their lives.