In her book Self-Taught, Heather Andrea Williams writes that access to literacy "disturbed the power relations" that formed the foundation of American slavery. Slavery in America went beyond the physical. Williams writes that “Masters made every attempt to control their captives’ thoughts and imaginations, indeed their hearts and minds” (p. 7). Literacy was a threat to this enslavement of the mind. Williams details how African Americans used learning as a strategy that allowed them to resist slavery and exploitation. In many ways, the utilization of education for liberatory ends continues in the present.
There are two key ways in which literacy served as part of the store of strategies that allowed enslaved people to resist slavery and exploitation.The first role of literacy was its development of ideas. Literacy connected the enslaved people with larger ideas; amongst these ideas was that of freedom. Being able to read literature that discussed ideas of human rights reinforced the existing feelings many enslaved people shared: the right to freedom, the call for equality. Williams shares the story of Turner, an enslaved African American person, who kept Abraham Lincoln’s picture above their bed as a reminder that freedom was possible, it was imminent. Williams writes: “(Turner) declared that slavery would not last forever and that she fully supported its demise” (p. 11). Whether it was the reading of abolitionist literature (p. 10) or the Bible (p. 23), enslaved people began to realize that slavery was not an inherent condition, but one that was created to exploit. Without planting the idea, it would be difficult for the revolution to grow. In knowing that freedom was possible, it could become a reality, it became something worth fighting for. Slavery became something worth fighting against.
Literacy also helped slavery become more bearable. There was a shared understanding from the literate enslaved people and those who shared or heard of their ideas that slavery would not last forever. Williams quotes: “for coloured people to acquire learning in this country, makes tyrants quake and tremble on their sandy foundation,’’ knowing that ‘‘their infernal deeds of cruelty will be made known to the world” (p. 14). Exposing the cruelties of enslavement and the imminent onset of freedom empowered the enslaved people with the ability to process their histories, survive their present, and work towards a different, more just future.
The second role of literacy was its ability to serve as a resource or tool. Williams shares the story of Willis, a thirty-year-old man who escaped enslavement. She narrates how Willis was able to achieve this. Williams writes, “Willis was using his literacy to affect his escape” (p. 23). This hypothesis is made based on the advertisement which was put out by Willis’s enslaver after his escape. The advertisement read: “I have good reason to believe that he (Willis) has been passing on a permit written by himself, fictitiously signed, and may attempt to pass himself as a free Negro” (p. 23). Literacy equipped enslaved people to be able to take active steps towards their own freedom. Illiteracy was used as a weapon to ensure that enslaved people were not able to actively participate in the economy. In being able to read, understand, and write on a permit, Willis and other literate enslaved people began using literacy as a tool and resource. Williams writes: “Owners’ fears of slave literacy materialized in the loss of their property” (p. 22). Literacy did not only pose an ideological threat - but a material one.
A group of women and children, presumably slaves, sit and stand around the doorway of a rough wooden cabin, Southern United States, mid 19th Century. One girl reads a book to the group of sitting children.
“Had he not learned to read, he would not have become dissatisfied with slavery” (p. 27) writes Williams about Frederick Douglass, an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. Literacy became a means to recognizing exploitation, and the tool to be able to demand freedom. Education for liberatory ends continues in the present day. When we think of literacy as an idea, we acknowledge that the first step to being able to address systems of exploitation is the ability to be able to call them for what they are. Education empowers us with the words we need to be able to identify the problem. The movement to increase faculty of color at Universities, for example, is an effort towards diversifying the narratives students are taught. It is an effort to publish books such as Self-Taught which remind us of what is missing from the curricula - the narratives of historically marginalized scholars who had to “steal an education”. The second role of literacy, literacy as a resource or tool, is evident in the active participation of people of color in the legal system, the government, and other such bodies of reformative power which allow them to advocate against laws that are exploitative and towards a just society. Without literacy, there would be no hope of this active participation.
Slave owners worked tirelessly to keep enslaved people illiterate. They feared what an educated man could achieve. Fortunately, their fears materialized. In having African-American scholars at elite universities, as Presidents of the United States, lawmakers and authors, and activists, we see their biggest fears come alive. Literacy has, and continues to, disturb unequal power relations. Education is revolution.
Williams, Heather A. Self-taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom., 2005. Internet resource.