Self-Emancipation and Slavery: An Examination of the African American's Quest for Literacy and Freedom

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"The bare name of educating the coloured people, scares our cruel oppressors ... ."

This declaration in David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, written in the nineteenth-century, represents one of the first, if not the first, Africancentric/Pan Africanist critique of White nationalism in the United States. The Appeal, published in 1830, by David Walker boldly attacked the institution of American slavery. Walker, as one of the precursors of Black nationalism, defiantly called for free and enslaved Africans to rise up against their European oppressors.

Walker's prophetic and liberatory language was a forerunner of other nineteenth-century freedom fighters like Sojourner Truth, Henry Highland Garnet, and Frederick Douglass who also used their mastery of the English language to challenge the political and moral constructs of American slavery. These early figures in the African American intellectual tradition challenged Africans in the United States to use language as a weapon in the struggle for their liberation.

It has been estimated that during the 400 years of the European Slave Trade, forty to one-hundred million Africans were captured and transported to the Americas (Rodney, 1974). This is perhaps a conservative figure. Richards (1980) and Ani (1994) suggest that understanding the maafa (Kiswahili word that describes a period of great disaster and tragedy) requires extensive study and analysis of the European world's global efforts to enslave, trade and exploit Africans in the Western Diaspora. In the United States, enslaved Africans, particularly in the South, lived in a cruel and inhumane society that sought to strip them of all elements of their African heritage, ethnic identity, and culture (family, kinships, languages, religions, traditions, and customs).

These maafa experiences occurred across several centuries. During this period, the development of systemic methods of enslavement and exploitation, and legalization of slavery created a racist and oppressive American society. Van Sertima (1976) documented that Africans arrived in the Americas as explorers and traders centuries before Europeans. However, in English North America, the enslavement of Africans evolved out of the widely practiced indentured servitude system that covered immigrants from England (Rose, 1976). Thus, with the arrival of twenty Africans to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, the beginnings of four centuries of European control over the lives and aspirations of Africans began. Today, the totality of the African maafa in the United States remains largely unknown to most Americans, including African Americans. Nonetheless, the enslaved African's struggle to acquire literacy, notably in the American South, is an important field of African American historiography.

De-Africanization and Racial Domination in the United States

Under American slavery, the slave holder's ideology shaped Southern life. Thus, owning "slaves" was the goal of every European male, rich or poor. Jacob and Landau (1971) suggest that historians generally categorize the personalities and behaviors of enslaved Africans into three types: 1) militant and rebellious, 2) docile, passive, and accepting, and 3) limited resistance due to constant terror of beatings, deprivation, and separation from families (p.100). Asante and Matteson (1992) found that the slaveholder's perceived need to control every aspect of the African life motivated their development of an interlocking system of exploitation and cultural domination. In this brutal, inhumane system, laws, statues and codes sanctioned chattel slavery. Ironically, the earliest statues punished Europeans for "immoral" relations with Africans. Then, in the 1640s, statues in the developing colonies singled-out Africans for distinct treatment, and by the end of the eighteenth-century, anti-African laws characterized the relationships between Europeans and Africans in the Southern colonies. …