The courageous effort of enslaved Africans to acquire English literacy is an often-ignored story that deserves frequent telling. It is also a political saga that recounts White America's legalization of the enslavement, dehumanization, and cultural domination of African Americans. In the southern United States, repressive laws sought to control every aspect of the relationship between Europeans and Africans. Despite these legal sanctions, Africans devised creative methods to learn to read and write as an essential first step toward freedom. The Federal Writers' Project undertaken from1936-1938 contains over 2,000 first-person narratives of the last stage of antebellum slavery. These accounts reveal African ingenuity and heroism in the face of their subjugation; they also disclose the devastating psychological and sociological affects of slavery on the African American's self-identity and cultural orientation. This paper traces the historical origins of American slavery, particularly in the southern United States. Ultimately, it examines the African American's epic quest for freedom in a nation constructed on White supremacy racism. Finally, it closes with a brief analysis of 20th century developments in the Black American liberation struggle.
"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. …