“We Slipped and Learned to Read”

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It is common knowledge that slaves were lawfully restricted from learning to read and write. One less commonly stated fact however, was that slaves were not completely ignorant. They could not read and write English but this did not mean they could not read and write period. As strangers in a foreign land, many African American’s had no knowledge of English or even America itself and thus had to be re-educated. Something they were restricted from as slaves.

It was obvious that slave owners understood that their control over the slave had to supersede the physical. To keep a slave in bondage, not just physically but spiritually and mentally, slave owners knew they had to invent a much stronger rope than one that wrapped itself around the Magnolia. To do this, they realized that knowledge is power and this realization became the beginning of slave codes throughout the United States that put restrictions on slaves learning to read and write. This included, most especially, reading the bible.

However, ironically, it was the reading of the bible and listening to the speech of their slave masters (who often spoke openly around blacks they assumed ignorant) that helped coach slaves into the reading process. The law was specific, reading or even teaching reading both had death penalties. Still, persistent as they were, slaves still found a way to by pass the law, slipped, and learned how to read. For many slaves reading and writing meant, if not physical freedom, mental and spiritual freedom. They could use it as a tool to escape slavery physically or write of the horrors of the institution as did many in the famous slave narratives. The following is an excerpt from a writing done by Janet Cornelius and published by Clark Atlanta University on slaves and literacy:

“Despite the dangers and difficulties, thousands of slaves learned to read and write in the antebellum south. Few left traces of their accomplishments, but 272 ex-slaves who told how they learned to read and write during slavery provide insight into the literacy process within the slave community. For slaves, literacy was a two-edged sword: owners offered literacy to increase their control, but resourceful slaves seized the opportunity to expand their own powers. Slaves who learned to read and write gained privacy, leisure time, and mobility. A few wrote their own passes and escaped from slavery. Literate slaves also taught others and served as conduits for information within the slave communication network. Some were able to capitalize on their skills and literacy as a starting point for literacy careers after slavery ended. Historians of education have drawn a distinction between bible literacy, whose prime motive was the conservation of piety and liberating literacy (slaves used the bible to learn to read), which facilitates diversity and mobility.”

– by Janet Cornelius, Phylon (1960-)

Vol. 44, No. 3 (3rd Qtr., 1983), pp. 171-186
Paper Published by: Clark Atlanta University
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