The Literacy Development and Practices within African American Literary Societies

By Muhammad, Gholnecsar E. | Black History Bulletin, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

The Literacy Development and Practices within African American Literary Societies


Muhammad, Gholnecsar E., Black History Bulletin


In an address before the American Moral Reform Society on August 17, 1837, James Forten, an African American writer, abolitionist, and businessman, eloquently charged a group of his fellow brethren and advocated for the development of literary institutions to improve the intellect and morality among African American people. He asserted:

   I conceive, our Literary Institutions to have the
   power of doing. It seems to me, then, that the main
   object is to accomplish an intellectual and moral
   reformation. And I know of but few better ways
   to effect [sic] this than by reading, by examining,
   by close comparisons and thorough investigations,
   by exercising the great faculty of thinking; for, if a
   man can be brought to think, he soon discovers that
   his highest enjoyment consists in the improvement
   of the mind; it is this that will give him rich ideas,
   and teach him, also, that his limbs were never made
   to wear the chains of servitude; he will see too that
   equal rights were intended for all. (1)

I uncovered this address while sifting through printed archives of African American literary societies of the 1800s. The sifting began with an interest to examine if and how these literary institutions cultivated the literacy development of African Americans throughout the nineteenth century. As a former secondary English language arts and history teacher, I understand the significance of blending meaningful reading and writing experiences while teaching history. As I learned more about these literary institutions that James Forten referred to and African American literacy development, I began to make connections to the storied lives and pursuits of the past and how history could be used to improve the quality of reading and writing experiences for middle and high school students.

Throughout the 1800s, a central objective among African Americans in the North was to improve and elevate the condition of people of African descent through a literary means. As illustrated in the excerpt from James Forten's address, the ways in which African Americans set out to counter the devastating conditions they endured during a time of racism and oppression was through reading and discussing literary texts. As part of a broader struggle to counter multiple attacks of oppression, they used their minds and their pens as weapons to battle injustice. Books and other texts (e.g., pamphlets, government documents, newspapers) became ammunition to fuel and elevate their lives. They knew that it they could work toward cultivating their minds and morals though acts of literacy, they would be equipped to face and alter the nation's harshest realities and countless attacks of terror placed upon African American people. Reading and writing were more than a set of skills for African Americans to possess; they were pathways to define their lives and advocate for civil rights. To this end, African Americans developed literary institutions, specifically literary societies, which were essentially collaborative spaces used to construct knowledge and engage each other to become literate.

African American literary societies were also called reading rooms, lyceums, and debating societies. These were more than just associations or spaces to discuss literature; they had wider goals of benefiting the conditions of African Americans and the wider society. These societies were large and small and were both gender-specific and unisex. The earlier societies were for men only. African American women subsequently created their own literary societies. Within these groups, African Americans of different ages would gather around texts they identified as meaningful and significant to encourage and improve reading, writing, and speaking skills, share knowledge, promote ideas and cultivate a scholarly and literate way of life. (2) Members in these societies met regularly in basements of churches, buildings with classrooms, libraries, private homes, and auditoriums for events, such as public addresses or debates that drew large crowds.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Literacy Development and Practices within African American Literary Societies
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.