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Reading “Boy”: Literacy as Cultural Dialogue

by Spencer Salas |

Happy New Year from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte! For this month’s post, I’d like to talk about the interaction of culture(s) and literacy and how we read words and each other across and against the specific communities of practice with which we identify.

Over the holidays, I returned to my childhood home in Virginia to visit my dad. His go-to spot for decades was a green leather chair next to a brick fireplace down a short flight of five steps from the kitchen. We’ve replaced his green chair with a blue one. In the winter evenings, you can still find him there channel surfing between the news and boxing and football.

It must have been just after my first fall semester in college when the doorbell rang. My best friend from high school, Greg, had come over to catch up.

When he entered the kitchen, our little black dog danced around him excitedly; and, my dad called out from his chair and up the stairs, “Bring me a beer, boy!”

You could see Greg jump.

“Is he talking to me?”

I remember laughing.

In a place like Virginia, the word boy, like most words, means different things to different people depending on who’s saying it and who’s receiving it and the context of the interaction.

Of course, at a basic level, boy signifies a male child or adolescent, as in, “a four-year-old boy.” These days it can also signify familiarity or closeness as in “He’s my boy” (i.e., my good friend).

But in the U.S. South, boy has long meant something deeply nefarious, especially when a white person uses it to address a Black male (of any age). 

That’s why Greg jumped — even though my dad’s a native Chamorro and Greg’s a light-skinned Jewish American. For a split second, Greg interpreted boy as some sort of racialized condescension.

What Greg didn’t understand was that Chamorro parents of my father’s generation commonly addressed their sons as “boy” and their daughters as “girl.”  Were there more than one son or daughter, they might hyphenate the first name with boy,  as in “Spencer-boy” or  with girl as in “Sara-girl.”  Or just “boy” or “girl” for short. In a Chamorro family, these are terms of endearment. 

Greg was still learning about my dad’s Chamorro ways. He didn’t get it at first. However, I knew my dad wasn’t asking Greg to bring him a drink. He was asking me.

So, I popped open a bottle from the fridge and took it to him.

More than a century ago, Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher and literary critic, explained it like this:

A meaning only reveals its depths once it has encountered and come into contact with another, foreign meaning: they engage in a kind of dialogue, which surmounts the closedness and one-sidedness of these particular meanings, these cultures. We raise new questions for a foreign culture, ones that it did not raise itself; we seek answers to our own questions in it; and the foreign culture responds to us by revealing to us its new aspects and new semantic depths.

So what happened that January evening in Fairfax, VA was something along the lines of an intercultural dialogue between Greg, my father, and me.

Reading is like that, too. Or as Mark Warschauer put it, reading and writing, whether in a first, second, or third language, is much more than rote decoding and coding of text. Rather, literacy is a complex social practice learned through dialogic communication and apprenticeship in a discourse community.

All that’s to say is that what a word means and what it can also mean is a product of shared culture, history, and geography. The same thing goes with texts. That's another reason why reading can be challenging, especially when a text is foreign in terms of our cultural orientation or distant from our historical or generational positionality. But what Bakhtin was suggesting is that through dialogue, we can come closer to understanding the range of meanings and possibilities that an utterance or even epic poem might contain.

I’m 56 years old and my dad is 91, and I’m still “Spencer-boy” and my son who just turned 22 is mine. As for Greg, he’s still “my boy” too—an old friend.

Here are a couple of questions to think about as we start reading and teaching reading in our classrooms this new year:

    • How does culture shape what we read and how we understand what we read?
    • How can we repair misunderstandings about our words and world, together?

About the author

Spencer Salas

Spencer Salas, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Middle, Secondary, and K–12 Education at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he leads the PhD in Curriculum and Instruction Urban Literacies/TESL subconcentration. An award-winning District of Columbia Public School ESL teacher (1994–2001), he has been a Fulbright Fellow to Romania (1998), Guatemala (2007), and South Africa (2013); and, a frequent U.S. Department of State English Language Specialist (2003–present). His scholarship focuses on Black and Brown teachers’ lives and the potential of humanizing dignity and care as K–16 best practice.

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