Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing

By Sternhell, Yael A. | The Journal of Southern History, November 2014 | Go to article overview

Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing


Sternhell, Yael A., The Journal of Southern History


Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing. By Christopher Hager. (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. [xii], 311. $39.95, ISBN 978-0-674-05986-3.)

Christopher Hager's Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing seeks to bring the tools of intellectual history and literary analysis to the study of enslaved people's writing during the age of emancipation. The book is premised on the idea that, despite widespread illiteracy in the black community, writing was a central experience for hundreds of thousands of African Americans who either acquired literacy while still in bondage or learned to write soon after gaining their freedom. Hager consciously avoids fugitive slave narratives, focusing instead on manuscript sources like letters, poems, diaries, notes, and petitions penned by a cast of largely unfamiliar characters. "Scholars have mined slaves' letters for what they reveal about the conditions of southern slavery," states Hager, "but the letters' composition remains largely unconsidered as an experience unto itself, an often practical, sometimes creative act not only of resistance but also of reflection and inner transformation" (p. 54).

The result is a beautifully crafted and innovative look at the writings of southern African Americans facing the oppressions of slavery and the possibilities of freedom. Readers encounter an enslaved potter who decorated his creations with poems, along with husbands and wives who wrote letters in desperate attempts to keep their families together. Hager delves into the diaries of a slave-turned-soldier who revealed an emerging notion of racial collectivity and of an urban bondman who was primarily preoccupied with his fiancee. Also apparent is the growing political consciousness and acumen of freedmen and freedwomen who utilized their literacy to protest or to appeal to white authority or to better understand the U.S. Constitution. Writing emerges as a deeply meaningful process, both reflective of and formative for African Americans' "private affective experience[s]" as well as their attempts to create new communities in the wake of emancipation (p. …

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