Learning Their Letters: Critical Literacy, Epistolary Culture, and Slavery in the Antebellum South1

By Schiller, Ben | Southern Quarterly, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Learning Their Letters: Critical Literacy, Epistolary Culture, and Slavery in the Antebellum South1


Schiller, Ben, Southern Quarterly


Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, 'If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master - to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,' said he, 'if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy. 'These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty - to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. - Frederick Douglass (1845)2

Like the present text, Elizabeth McHenry's thought provoking monograph, Forgotten Readers (2002), which recounts the history of African American literary societies, begins with the self-conscious repetition of an incident that has come to stand as synecdoche for the entirety of enslaved African Americans' struggles for literacy. As McHenry puts it, "[n]o scene from African American literary history is more familiar than that of Frederick Douglass learning to read."3 But, while this story is doubtless the most oft quoted episode in the history of African American "mis-education,"4 even as I repeat it I am conscious that this most famous of nineteenth-century black writers was himself presenting it as a trope. Douglass was, after all, conforming his life story to a set of narrative conventions that one critic has ironically described as a "Master Plan for Slave Narratives," in which various motifs were necessarily deployed in an explicit effort to construct the individual life as representative of the lot of all enslaved people and thus to make of it a referent, confirmation, and substantiation for every aspect of the abolitionist critique of slavery.5

Within this model, a significant element was the enumeration of "barriers against literacy and the overwhelming difficulties in learning to read and write."6 This served multiple purposes, three of which have proved crucial in determining the discursive limits of historical analyses of slavery and literacy. First, such accounts revealed the iniquities of an institution that used de jure and defacto means to systematically deny the enslaved any education, which was surely crime enough for a predominantly middle class readership that included many evangelical Christians who placed an extremely high value on literacy as the means to both spiritual salvation and personal development. Second, an emphasis on barriers to education clearly signified the personal determination of the enslaved man or woman in acquiring whatever level of literacy they had gained whilst in bondage, thus constructing this process as an oppositional act in and of itself. Third, constructing the attainment of literacy as actively defiant made it clear that in enabling the enslaved to become educated readers or writers who could analyze and produce texts for themselves, or indeed in enabling them to become teachers of other enslaved people, literacy had, at least in an existential sense, already proved to be the "pathway from slavery to freedom. …

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 ...
Default project is now your active project.
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

Learning Their Letters: Critical Literacy, Epistolary Culture, and Slavery in the Antebellum South1
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
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.