The ability to read and write allots a sense of power. People who can read and write are able to create arguments, share opinions, become more knowledgeable, and perform day-to-day life tasks. Today, we perceive education and schooling as a right. We age in a culture that celebrates literacy and the freedom to learn. However, this has not always been the case.
In the antebellum South, reading and writing practices among slaves were nearly nonexistent. According to Violet J. Harris’s article, titled “African-American Conceptions of Literacy: A Historical Perspective,” only “15-20 percent of African Americans could read” at the beginning of the 19th century (Harris 279). Slaves were denied the right to education because many believed “African Americans were intellectually inferior and incapable of learning more than the rudiments of basic skills” (Harris 276). Though some didn’t buy into this view, they still restricted the learning of slaves to “rudimentary literacy skills” that would guarantee social order remained intact and caste would not move (Harris 276). The desire to keep slaves on the bottom of the social caste led to a fear of their literacy.
Most slave owners feared the actions of educated slaves, and therefore did everything in their power to restrict access to education. Slaveowners feared the freedom literacy would bestow on their slaves, believing that literate slaves would be able to forge passes and ignite revolutions, so they opposed it vehemently. According to Kimberly Sambol-Tosco’s post, titled “The Slave Experience: Education, Arts, & Culture,” some states, such as South Carolina, went a step further, passing laws that prohibited teaching slaves to read and write. Though not true everywhere, formal education for African American slaves in the South was nonexistent.
Dangers of Literacy
Even if literacy was not banned, it was highly dangerous. Janet Cornelius’s article, “We Slipped and Learned to Read: Slave Accounts of the Literacy Process,” sheds light on slaves’ experiences and stories as they worked towards literacy. According to Cornelius, literacy “was a two-edged sword” that held freedom and extreme danger. The ability to read and write provided unheard of freedom for slaves, but if caught, they were often punished in extreme ways. Accounts given by ex-slaves during the Federal Writers Project shed light on why literacy was hard to teach and grasp. Owners who taught their slaves to read were often met with “patrols, mobs, and social ostracism,” some going as far as accusing the owner of being poisoned (Cornelius 173). They were mocked and thought of as less in the social order.
The problems faced by owners paled in comparison to those encountered by slaves. Slaves were brutally tortured if they were discovered; common punishments included amputation, whipping, public humiliation, and other atrocities. A story reported to the Writers Project discussed a man who stole a book in the pursuit of learning how to read:
“Henry Nix’s uncle stole a book and was trying to learn to read and write with it, so ‘Marse Jasper had the white doctor take off my Uncle’s fo’finger right down to de ‘fust jint’” as a “sign fo de res uv ‘em” (Cornelius 174).
Stories such as this one served as a warning to slaves desiring literacy and writing skills. Striving for literacy meant severe punishment and, in some cases, death. As owners began to threaten beheadings and hanging, many began to fear attempting to learn due to the repercussions.
The Select Few
Due to the very real horror of being caught, many slaves refused to learn. The slaves who could read and write made up a very select (and small) group. Many of these slaves came from an urban background where writing was part of their job. If a slave could read and write, they were often “considered esteemed members of the slave community” and became leaders (Sambol-Tosco 1).
Most slave owners wanted to keep slaves illiterate, but some owners taught their slaves to read and write. This teaching happened for several reasons. The most common reason cited by ex-slaves was that of religious enlightenment; slave owners wanted their slaves to be able to read and interpret the Bible, but many also “hoped to shield their slaves from the liberating aspects of literacy” (Cornelius 179). This is known as “Bible literacy,” or the level of reading that could be attained under religiously inspired teaching by whites. Slave owners viewed this form of literacy to be safer than “liberating literacy,’ which facilitates diversity and mobility” (Cornelius 171). By teaching slaves to read the Bible, slaveowners fulfilled their Christian duty of preaching God’s word without overstepping the boundary of freedom.
Literacy was taught by slave owners for other reasons as well. Some ex-slaves discuss being brought into the family as playmates for slave owners children, which made them “become pets of the white family as tiny children and family members thought it ‘cute’ to see them learning the alphabet and trying to read” (Cornelius 179). Others were taught in order to be able to take records. Some owners truly believed in the power of education and wanted it to be passed on to the slaves, however these owners were not common in the South.
Some slaves learned to read on their own. They jumped through hoops in order to teach themselves, finding their own tools and creating solutions to the problem of missing resources. Some “borrowed” books from their owners and “made their own writing materials and used planks to write on, or practiced writing in sand” (Cornelius 180). They read and studied at night and on the weekends by the light of wooden planks they had snuck into the house. Slaves sacrificed free time and endured the threats in order to become literate in hopes of a better future.
The power of literacy was kept under covers in the American South. By not allowing a group of people the ability to read and write, we squashed freedoms and kept them under the power of slave owners. The few that endured torture in order to learn brought hope and promise. The story of literacy in the South is an excellent example of how powerful reading and writing are; what we perceive as a human right now was then viewed as a privilege only available to a select few.
Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.
Cornelius, Janet. “‘We Slipped and Learned to Read:’ Slave Accounts of the Literacy Process, 1830-1865.” Phylon (1960-), vol. 44, no. 3, 1983, pp. 171-86. JSTOR.
Harris, Violet J. “African-American Conceptions of Literacy: A Historical Perspective.” Theory Into Practice vol. 31, no. 4, 1992, pp. 276-86. JSTOR.
Sambol-Tosco, Kimberly. “The Slave Experience: Education, Arts, & Culture.” PBS. PBS, 2004. Web. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/slavery/experience/education/history2.html>.