The Literacy Development and Practices within African American Literary Societies

Article excerpt

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. …


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