“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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Book Launch Trivia! *New Winners!*

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After we closed out the game yesterday, we had some new participants in the questions who came later on.

Congratulations to Lynette Davis for answering our Trivia question correctly on the Jim Crow Laws!

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You’ve just won a FREE Coffee Cup! Please send your mailing address to:

ahouseofpoetry@gmail.com

All prizes will be mailed in 5-7 business days. Stay tuned, more winners are coming up this week!

Congrats again and thanks for playing! Whoop!

Movie Night Friday – Imitation of Life (1959)

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For today’s segment of Movie Night Friday, where I present some of my favorite movies and why I love them, I present a special feature in honor of my upcoming book, which deals with the concept of racial passing.

In this 1959 classic, which originally comes from a book of the same name and is a remake of the 1934 version, a struggling young actress with a six-year-old daughter sets up housekeeping with a homeless black widow and her light-skinned eight-year-old daughter who rejects her mother by trying to pass for white.

Imitation Of Life 1959“Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) dreams of becoming a famous Broadway actress. Losing track of her young daughter Susie at the beach (portrayed as a child by Terry Burnham), she asks a stranger named Steve Archer (John Gavin) to help her find the girl. Susie is found and looked after by Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), a black single mother who also has a daughter, Sarah Jane (portrayed as a child by Karin Dicker), who is about Susie’s age. Sarah Jane inherited her father’s fair skin and can pass for white. She does this with fierce zeal and fervor, taking advantage of her European heritage and features. In return for Annie’s kindness, Lora temporarily takes in Annie and her daughter. Annie persuades Lora to let her stay and look after the household, so that the widow can pursue an acting career.”

– Wikipedia

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Though Imitation of Life was the fourth-most successful motion picture of 1959, grossing $6.4 million and Universal-International’s top-grossing film that year, there are mixed feelings among critics as to the social messages of the film in that time. Critic Molly Haskell once described ‘Imitation’s’ double-vision: “The black girl’s agonizing quest for her identity is not seen from her point of view as much as it is mockingly reflected in the fun house mirrors of the culture from which she is hopelessly alienated.”

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For me, I am about to watch it again, my first time in a long time, as study material. I am 28 years old in 2015, and as I cozy up on the sofa, pen, pad (and snacks) in hand, it is fascinating to ponder how those who lived in this time, black and white, saw the films message and how they viewed the influence of the film in the Jim Crow Era. What was America’s attempt in showing a movie like this? Was it to expose the practice of Passing as practiced by many African Americans of the time? Was it for a genuine concern of the many Americans of mixed ancestry and their search for identity? Was it, as many deem it, to further degrade the African American community? Or was it to seek change in the current societal perceptions of what it means to be black and what it means to be white in America?

Trailer:

Movie Night Friday – The Great Debaters

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Welcome back to another segment of Movie Night Friday on The PBS Blog, where I list some of my favorite movies and why I love them.


This week, I’d like to discuss The Great Debaters.

The-Great-Debaters-2007-picture-MOV_b726c816_b I love this movie and I can give extensive reasons why but if I am honest, the real reason is poetry. I like The Great Debaters movie because their debates sound like spoken word poetry.  Even before I knew Melvin Tolson was a poet, I found the language, even basic dialogue, so very poetic and the debates as Open Mic Nights.

Aside from this, there was also the concept of race in America and parenthood. Yes, parenthood. James Farmer Sr. was so engulfed in his work that he did not often give much attention to his son. For example, James Jr. was letting his father know, subtly, that he liked Samantha Booke, another fellow debater and classmate. He mentioned her as one of the alternatives among the group and, recognizing this, his father reminded him that “you must not take your eyes off the ball son.” While this was all good (as I loved the “we do what we have to do in order to do what we want to do” line) Farmer Sr. didn’t realize at that moment the opportunity to speak with his son about girls. It was this knowledge that upset his mom who didn’t say anything but whose anger could be seen in her sudden fast pace in peeling the potatoes. She recognized her husband’s failure to take this opportunity to have an intimate conversation with his son. This is the kind of writing that I love; the kind that could reveal an emotion or a feeling even without it being verbalized.

The Great Debaters is a movie based on real events about the poet and professor Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington) who teaches at the predominately black Wiley College in Marshall Texas, in 1935. Tolson starts a debate team and as the tryouts begin and end, Tolson picks four students, three of which become the central focus of the movie. As the students prepare to challenge various schools, we see also how they deal with the challenges that face them in the Jim Crow south.

4While at first Tolson butts head with the influential father (Forest Whitaker) of one of his best debaters, eventually Tolson is able to form a team of strong-minded, intelligent young students, and they become the first black debate team to challenge Harvard’s prestigious debate champions.

“Who’s the judge?”

“The judge is God.”

“Why is he God?”

“Because he decides who wins or loses, not my opponent.”

One of my favorite lines is this one. While I believe in calling the father by his name, Yah, I understand what this scene means and I like it because it’s strengthening even for those of us who are watching the movie. No matter who you think you are against, the judge is always Yah, not your opponent. In the end, we will be asked about our own sins and not the sins of others.

Tolson’s political views, add more to the story. He is a man who sneaks out at night to a country barn wearing overalls and works boots. And as rumors of radical communism sparks, it causes him to lose one of his students. Tolson is not to be undone, however, and keeps his politics out of the classroom. While the movie highlights his knowledge of poetry as he teaches English, it does not mention that he is a leading poet. Tolson in fact, published long poems in such magazines as the Atlantic Monthly and in 1947 was named poet laureate of Liberia.

History

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As stated, this movie is based on the real-life events of the student debate team of Wiley College. Under the leadership of Tolson, Wiley College’s debate team became legendary. It won almost every debate among historically-black colleges and became the first to debate a white college when it took on and defeated Oklahoma City College in 1932. The team’s crowning achievement, however, came in 1935 when it defeated that year’s national champions, the University of Southern California. And naturally, after the movie was made in 2007, Wiley College rose to popularity again with increased enrollment and the re-establishing of its debate team.

My Favorite Line:

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“I am here to help you to find, take back, and keep your righteous mind because obviously you have lost it.”

Trailer:

Funny Movie Mistakes:

It was hard to find any real mistakes in this movie. Most people say it is the Willie Lynch Speech, that there was no such letter and Tolson’s reciting of this piece of History is flawed. However, I do not believe that. I believe The Willie Lynch Letter did exist because I don’t believe in coincidences. Everything written in that letter to other slave owners on how to control their slaves can be seen in the behavior of many in the black community today. From the separation of the races by color (pitch the dark skin slave against the light skin slave), to the Making of a Slave and the Breaking process of the Black woman.

What’s your favorite movie? Why do you love it?”