Literacy and Black Americans have shared an enduring relationship. I travelled to Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana recently and on The Wall of Horror—a wall detailing the horrific experience as a black slave in America—there are quotes shedding light on the violent punishment slaves would face if caught reading—25 lashes if ever caught with a pen or paper in hand. Frederick Douglass’ own story illustrates the visceral desire to read and the terrible pain that came with learning how to do so.
“I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow‐slaves for their stupidity.” – Frederick Douglass
Phillis Wheatley’s literacy and mastering of language through poetry forced her, too, a sense of agony of not being able to have her books of poems initially published. White American colonizers—Thomas Jefferson included—believed that:
“Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.” – Thomas Jefferson
The ability to read and write was a right purposefully kept away from Africans forced to work as slaves in America (Caribbean and South America as well) because, as William Lynch said:
“If you take a slave, if you teach him all about your language, he will know all your secrets, and he is then no more a slave, for you can’t fool him any longer, and being a fool is one of the basic ingredients of any incidents to the maintenance of the slavery system” – William Lynch
If an enslaved person had the ability to think independently, logically and to articulate the illogic and inhumane institution of chattel slavery back to the master who manipulated Bible Scriptures to paint lies that told Africans they were born to be slaves—heirs of Cain’s mark—then slavery as White American and European Colonizers created it would be over and so would be the profits of their exploitation of labor and lives. Needless to say Literacy and Liberation were directly intertwined and Black American slaves quest for either could result in violent consequences—death not excluded.
But if one were to guess that these individuals carried on a life of illiteracy one would be mistaken. Slaves who were lettered risked their lives to share such knowledge with their peers. Every negro spiritual sung on the field told a story; many told the route toward the underground railroad famously travelled by a conductor of the name of Harriet Tubman who carried thousands of slaves to freedom. Such in intricate and elaborate trip from the depths of the south to the opening of the north could not have been done by those who were illiterate. The idea that literacy is only expressed through the ability to read flat text is a myopic one, to put it nicely. Everything from the music, to the folktales, to the quilts and markings of safe-houses along the underground railroad proved that Black American slaves had found a way to express Literacy and to go in search of their liberation in spite of the violent consequences, but when the confederate south Surrendered to the north Reconstruction will prove to be a period of great hope and a period of great despair.
In Margaret Walker’s, Jubilee, one thing Vyry, the protagonist, wanted most for her children after the Surrender was to go to school:
“I wants my chilluns to go to school, too, and learn how to read and write and cipher” – Jubilee
The economic disparity within the south, along with the continuing racial tension, after the war made it difficult for schools to exist
“The question of sending white and black to school together was always answered by a storm of protest, and violence erupted every time there was an attempt to put such schools into operation. The negroes themselves were crying for education, and by 1870 the Freedmen’s Bureau had established a few schools in every southern state. These schools, of course, were not free”
What’s more was that white individuals were willing to refuse schools if it meant black children being able to learn beside them. Black people were now “free” by definition, but a lack of flat-text literacy left them vulnerable to further labor exploitation through share-cropping and countless other exploits. My grandmother told me the story of her mother being unable to read or write and in the place of her name she would mark an X. My great-grandmother was by no means an unintelligent woman, but that lack of flat-text literacy made her depended on the literacy of her children so much so that my grandmother expressed how she worried about her mother and who was assisting her with her documents when my grandmother moved away.
Even black americans who were flat-text literate faced violent attacks from the newly developing Klu Klux Klan that was determined to restore white-supremacy in the south. Black Americans now had more options than before to become flat-text literate, but limited means and the familiar threat of violence continued to make an already task even more daunting. So here I am, a century after the failing of Reconstruction, working for a literacy-based program in Americorps. How did I get here? Why did I chose to be here?
The answer is in that century—and counting—long struggle for the literacy and liberation of Black Americans (and across the Diaspora). During the time of Reconstruction when so many young children of former slaves were left without formal education, many people stepped up to educate them as best they could; it was not easy by any means and the battle between school and economic support was, and still is, a battle that incapacitated a lot of black Americans from receiving education. Had it not been for these nameless people lost in history I would not, could not, have been the woman I am today with my nose forever hidden behind the creased spine of a book I’ve annotated to death.
There is a sense of gratitude I feel for people like Mary McLoud Bathune, Marva Collins, and Rita Pierson—educators who focused on the needs of the black community, who gave of themselves the knowledge that was eclipsed from us over one-hundred years ago. I am also grateful for people like my seventh-grade librarian who let me work with her to cancel out books from her database then take home whatever cancelled books I wanted; she was my resource for finding books about girls whose hair, face, culture, and family was like my own. She helped me to articulate my thoughts, and most of all, she encouraged my budding love for reading. Where would I have been if it weren’t for the individuals in my life who rooted for me, who pushed me, who gave of themselves so that I could be the best version of myself?
I joined this literacy-based program because I wanted to be what Dr. Rita Pierson calls a “champion.” I wanted to be what those nameless individuals were who risked their lives during slavery to teach others how to read, those who combined their resources to conduct schools in church-houses for black children during Reconstruction, those who continued on through several liberation movements, through several threats of violence to gift their people with literacy.
“Every child deserves a champion: an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists they become the best they can possibly be” – Rita Pierson
I’ve never planned on becoming a formal teacher–I often have to ignore the pestering of others trying to understand why I’m doing this (as if volunteering a year to educating the next generation is so terrible), but when I think of the life of one of the most influential revolutionaries in the world, a revolutionary who co-founded a black self-defense movement that extended to include and inspire the self-defense and liberation of the proletariat people of, across, and beyond America, I think of the fact that he, Huey P. Newton, could not read until after high school. Like Malcolm X, Huey’s evolving literacy level directly elevated his mind and his passion for liberation. I know I cannot magically enhance the reading-level of every young student I come into contact with, but my hope is I will be the best champion I can be so that no other Huey P. Newtown makes it to seventeen without being able to read, without the access to the means to articulate the innate intelligence within.