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

Article excerpt

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. …