"American Horror Story" actor Ameer Baraka’s own mother called him “dumb and stupid.” His teachers humiliated him. And his dyslexia, which made it difficult for him to read, turned the young man into a "street thug" and a killer. Now an accomplished actor, Baraka was only a few words away from a life in prison, all because he couldn’t read.
Baraka’s turning point came in the sixth grade.
“It was the first week of school. We were in English class and the teacher called upon me to read out loud,” he recounted to a Senate committee today at a hearing to raise awareness for dyslexia. “My palms began to sweat and it was like drops of blood from my forehead. I couldn't pronounce any words and the teacher made me continue knowing I couldn't read."
He continued: "Some students laughed while others looked in amazement. From that day forward, I knew that school wasn't the place for me.... The streets became my classroom and the lessons I learned looking back were shameful. I shot and killed a young person because the streets told me that is how you resolve conflict.” A juvenile at the time, Baraka served a year in prison for manslaughter and was released when he was 15.
The Senate halls of Washington, D.C., are a long way from the projects of New Orleans where Baraka grew up. But he joked with the senators that he might be one of them -- if not for the fact that he couldn’t read. “I could have been sitting where you are had someone caught me early on,” he said.
Neither his mother nor his teachers could diagnose Baraka’s problem. “Having my mother and siblings call me names like 'stupid and dumb,' using names like these can cause any child to feel hopeless and lost,” he remembered.
“So, I chose to succumb to my environment while both brother and sister excelled in school," Baraka continued. "I didn't care about my future or anyone else because I thought I was a dummy like my mother and siblings said. I became a street thug and full of anger because I felt cheated out of an education. I went to school just because I had to as a kid. Many Fridays I would 'malinger' because I couldn’t pass the spelling test. Or I would sleep in a project hallway until school was out just to avoid embarrassment. I pushed myself into a hole that I couldn't get out of.”
Without an education, Baraka turned to drugs. Even after serving his time for killing someone, he would find himself back behind bars. “I got back into the drug game still never reading and ended up doing prison time as an adult,” he told the senators. “At age 23, I entered into a prison correctional facility reading at a third-grade level. I didn't feel so bad because many of the men there were just like me. We all read poorly.”
Today, Baraka believes the key to success is being able to read. “It gives you encouragement,” he said. "It gives you motivation to say, 'You know what, I can read.' I think that’s one of the most powerful things in the world, to read." He added that he thinks it’s important for parents and teachers to diagnose dyslexia early so that young people can get the proper schooling.
Baraka was inspired to turn his life around after he managed to read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" while in prison. Malcolm X was kicked out of school in the seventh grade.
"I thought for the first time in life that I could accomplish something too," he said. "I worked hard, writing down each word I had trouble pronouncing. I just kept memorizing words and writing letters and reading small books."
It worked. Baraka has become a successful model, actor and author, and starred on season 3 of “American Horror Story.”
He said today, “I always felt as though I was someone.” But it was teaching himself to read that helped his dreams come true.