Benjamin felt hopeful in 1970. He was 19, with a loving wife, Althea (19), and two rollicking sons, Ben Jr. (2) and Paul (1).
By Thom Hawkins
He had finally finished twelve frustrating years in an urban public school system and moved his young family out of the high crime area he grew up in. Despite being unemployed because he read at a fourth grade level, he was determined to find his voice. I was determined to become a teacher. We met through a volunteer literacy tutorial service that Ben had sought out. After ten months of weekly tutorials together, he read at high school level.
I told Ben’s story in Benjamin: Reading and Beyond (Charles E. Merrill Co, 1972), which influenced a generation of reading teachers. Because of the book, the Educational Opportunity Program at UC Berkeley hired me to help start a campus tutorial service in writing for Affirmative Action students.
Ben found his voice in poetry. He had a lot to say.
A Minor Reflection
I went to the mirror to see myself
but before I got there
I had to find myself
how hard it is
to find yourself
“Here are two protagonists engaged in battle for a man’s life, fighting the ravages of poverty and crime, the humiliations and stupidities of the welfare state, the pollyanodynes of color TV, the insidious despair of self-contempt. At stake is Benjamin, who may or may not be reborn…” (From A Review of Thom Hawkins’ Benjamin: Reading and Beyond. Margaret J. Early, Journal of Reading, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Nov., 1972), pp. 145-148.)
I found myself
inside an open can of peaches,
so sweet, so bad and yellow.
I have to find a way
my can of peaches.
I set aside a morning to visit Ben’s old high school and study his Cumulative File. I wanted to understand how he could be passed through the system without earning a diploma or learning to read at grade level. I told him about my visit and he dictated a recollection of what happened to one of his classmates.
How should I put it? He gone. He won’t be at home. He’s dead now. He don’t have nothing to fear. They got him. They hung his brother and crippled his sister and took his mother away. He wasn’t that bad. I knew him when he was happy and glad. But now he’s dead and gone. No more rioting and fighting for his and other people’s rights. He was a good man, you know. He taught me a lesson. If I can teach and show my kids right from wrong and give them a piece of him, they will be strong.
Shortly after we finished our tutorials, Ben and Althea became Black Muslims and banned me, a “White Devil,” from further contact. I had encouraged them to look into The Nation of Islam.
The book was a modest success and I put 10% of my royalties into a separate account for Ben, as promised. When the book went out of print ten years later, I tracked him down to give him his share. He was very difficult to find.
After many failed attempts, I finally spoke on the phone with a mysterious woman who seemed to be acting in some kind of protective capacity–she would not identify herself. She told me that Ben had followed in his father’s footsteps and became a recidivist alcoholic who was in and out of jail. Althea had left him and taken the children. The woman on the phone wouldn’t connect me with Ben, so I sent her a check made out to him and never heard back. I recognized Ben’s signature on the canceled check.
I wished I could tell him that he had an important role contributing to the academic success of thousands of his Black brothers and sisters. He taught me so much.
Postscript: Recently a friend, Pat Dennis, read Benjamin and wrote this comment: “While many years have passed, there has been little progress in garnering further understanding of Ben’s struggle. Hopefully now may be a turning point. Considering when this was written, it is quite prophetic.”
You can find used copies of Benjamin: Reading and Beyond on the Internet. It should be required reading for the new Congress and administration in Washington. Fifty years later, as an open race war rages throughout our country, we still have much more to learn.
We hope you appreciated this article. Before you move on, please consider supporting the Colorado Boulevard’s journalism.
Billionaires, hedge fund owners and local imposters have a powerful hold on the information that reaches the public. Colorado Boulevard stands to serve the public interest – not profit motives.
While fairness guides everything we do, we know there is a right and a wrong position in the fight against racism and climate crisis while supporting reproductive rights and social justice. We provide a fresh perspective on local politics – one so often missing from so-called ‘local’ journalism.
You can access Colorado Boulevard’s paywall-free journalism because of our unique reader-supported model. People like you, informed readers, keep us independent, beholden to no outside influence, and accessible to everyone.
Please consider supporting Colorado Boulevard today. Thank you. (Click to Support)