Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing: Books

By Follett, Richard | Times Higher Education, July 4, 2013 | Go to article overview

Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing: Books


Follett, Richard, Times Higher Education


Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing, By Christopher Hager, Harvard University Press, 328pp, Pounds 29.95, ISBN 9780674059863 and 067486 (e-book), Published 28 February 2013

Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world," blasted one slaveholder, "it would forever unfit him to be a slave." As Word by Word makes clear, enslaved people understood this fundamental tension and many of them, including former slave and prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass, attempted to harness the power of the written word. For Douglass, who would later write the most widely read account of American bondage, literacy opened "the pathway from slavery to freedom". That pathway was anything but easy, for as he read and contemplated texts of an increasingly political nature, Douglass writhed in "unutterable anguish". Literacy had opened his eyes to "the horrible pit" of slavery but also reaffirmed his "wretched condition".

Douglass' plight was not unusual in mid-19th-century America. Literacy provided a vocabulary of citizenship rights for enslaved peoples; it served as a conduit for political and personal protest; it enabled freed people to express their identities, opinions and feelings; yet it also entangled them in new dependencies with state and military authorities. Through a series of bold, imaginative and insightful case studies, Christopher Hager uncovers the intellectual world of US slavery and charts the hopes, expectations and fears of enslaved writers. Thomas Ducket, for instance, a barely literate slave sold away from his family to Louisiana, reveals the anguish of separation in his plaintive plea to white abolitionist Jacob Bigelow. Ducket's crooked lines and shaky penmanship expose the intensity of isolation and the totality of enslavement, even as they carry forth a hopeful, desperate message of family love.

Others turned their hands to more declaratory statements. The enslaved potter Dave etched his own independent thoughts into jars, while John Washington composed a diary that was self-consciously crafted to give voice to the bondsman and his dawning vision of freedom. What Hager calls "unfinished reckonings" with the past, present and future form one strand of the slaves' epistolary culture, but over time these autobiographical manifestos morphed into communal and unified visions of freedom. …

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