How to Identify Enabling Texts

"I constantly ask myself, out of all of the texts in the world,
why do I want to put this text in front of my students?"
                                                                    -Alfred Tatum, Reading for Their Life (p. 90).
Identifying enabling texts that feature African-American adolescent males is difficult, especially given the small number of books published each year that are about African-Americans in general.  As the figure below shows, we believe there are three categories of current literature that feature African-American adolescent males.  
At one end of the continuum are enabling texts--the texts that Tatum argues contain strong content and will "cause [African-American adolescent males] to take action in their own lives" (Tatum, 2009, p. 65).

According to Tatum (2009), enabling texts encourage the reader to:

1.      Define self: find the text and language that helps them put their voice on record without waiting for others to define them or their generation

2.      Become resilient: remain steadfast in the face of vulnerability occasioned by conditions inside and outside school.

3.      Engage others: inspire their contemporaries to strive toward better humanity for all.

4.      Build capacity-create a foundation on which future generations can build their agendas.

He identifies many examples of enabling texts in Reading for Their Life. Examples include Black Boy  by Richard Wright, The Pact  by Sampson Davis, George Jenkins, and Rameck Hunt, and First Part Last by Angela Johnson.    
At the other end of the continuum are texts which Tatum refers to as disabling texts (Tatum, p. 65). Included in his definition of disabling texts are books which serve reinforce the stereotypes of African-American adolescent males as  hoopsters, fatherless sons, gang recruits, truants, and users of poor grammar and raw language.  Often, as Tatum points out, these books also show African-American males scorned for being smart, trying to break from the norms of their impoverished community, or beating the odds and making it. For a more indepth discussion of disabling texts see Tatum's Reading for Their Life. 
In our research we have identified a third category which we call neutral texts.  While neutral texts, like enabling texts, are culturally relevant and often  feature African-American male teens, their focus is less on boarder social issues/topics and  more on common teen issues such as coming of age, the need to belong, friendship, sexual identity and curiosity, and relationships with parents, just to name a few.  As Melanin from Angela Johnson's From the Notebook of Melanin Sun says, "The world turns upside-down when you are thirteen-going-on fourteen.  I want to ask someone right now--when will it right itself again" (1995, p. 6).  We believe neutral texts deal with the "upside down" feeling that teens often experience during adolescence.
While all three types of texts may appeal to African-American male teens (and will be part of library collections), as Tatum argues enabling texts are the texts that should be part of our literacy instruction--the texts we should mediate with teens. As librarians select texts to recommend to teachers, parents, and students as enbling texts we encourage them to ask themselves the question Tatum indicates that he constantly asks himself: "out of all of the texts in the world, why do I want to put this text in front of my students?" (p. 90).
This is a key question and one that requires librarians to critically examine texts for the characteristics that make them powerful--the characteristics that separate the truly enabling texts from those which are neutral or disabling.  To aid in this endeavor, we have used Tatum's work to create the rubric shown below.  Unless otherwise noted, each characteristic was derived from Tatum's work.  We have added one characteristic that emerged from our research.   

Rubric:  Characteristics of Enabling Texts




Provide a healthy psyche (Tatum, 2009)


·    lead them to look within

·    show Black male teens defining themselves


Provide a modern awareness of the real world (Tatum, 2009)

·    connected to issues/questions that students find essential today

·    take place w/in the context of their life experiences

·    deal with issues that are important to Black adolescent males

·    present “real” environments/conditions Black male teens face

      inside and outside school

Focus on the collective struggles of African-Americans (Tatum, 2009)

·    provide insight into issues related to social justice

·    allow Black male adolescents to take a critical look at their

      oppression & oppressors

·    contain content that will cause them to take action in their own


·    challenge them to think about their existence

·    cause them to examine the academic & social ills they face

Serve as a road map for being, doing, thinking and acting (Tatum, 2009)

·    reflect an improved human condition

·    suggest steps/strategies/supports for improving life

·    speak to the power of the individual

·    speak to the power of the collective

Recognize, honor & nurture multiple identities (Tatum, 2009)

·    academic

·    cultural

·    economic

·    gendered

·    personal

·    social

·    sexual

·    communal

·    national

·    international

Demonstrate resiliency (Tatum, 2009)

·    focus on self-reliance

·    focus on self-determination

·    show Black males as problem solvers

·    challenge victim mentality

Interesting and provocative (Tatum, 2009)

·    thematically engaging

·    complex--multi- layered

·    developmentally appropriate

·    fast moving

·    taps into feelings, imagination, and intellectual curiosity

Avoid caricatures (Tatum, 2009)

·    hoopster

·    fatherless son

·    gang recruit

·    truant

·    uses poor grammar and raw language

·    rappers

·    drug users

·    scorned for being smart, trying to break from norms of  impoverished neighborhood, or beaten the odds 

Align with one or more literacy platform (Tatum, 2009)

·    define self

·    become resilient

·    engage others

·    build capacity

Include a mentor or role model (Rawson and Hughes-Hassell, 2011)

·    character who provides guidance  or offers wisdom to the protagonist

·    often an adult or elderly member of the African-American community, although it can be another teen

·    usually not didactic or preachy                                                     

Subpages (1): Sample Enabling Text