“We Slipped and Learned to Read”


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

Reading – The Write Way

tumblr_lhiimg18wx1qcf1klMy first love was Mildred D. Taylor. It was the sixth grade, and I was Smitten for Stacey, Cassie, and the whole Logan gang in the classic “Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry”. I realized then my love for African American literature, history and culture. The sharecropping family had snagged at the core of my heartstrings and had me feigning for every Taylor book ever written. I went on to court “The Road to Memphis, “Let the Circle Be Unbroken”, “Mississippi Bridge” and all the others. It wasn’t a conscious thought of mine that I was coming to love reading. That literature caught my eye and curved my wanting into a lovesick smile. Didn’t occur to me that I’d found an inner itch only scratch-able through the deciphering of words on a page. Clearly I was hooked, spending more and more time at school libraries, showing favoritism toward my English school teachers, and carrying home a grocery store bag of books at a time.


reading-infoReading, what is its connection to writing? I’m not a literacy expert so I don’t have any fancy advice to give you. But I do know my love for reading fed my love for writing. I got lost in the world of the authors and their writing became an automatic mimicking on my part. Almost just as instant as I’d fallen for reading I fell for writing. It is almost inherent that a love for reading will eventually lead to a love for writing. Eventually I wanted to be the architect behind the words. I wanted to be the illustrator behind the way the sky looked, how tall the buildings were and what dress Doris decided she’d wear today, or if she would wear a dress at all. I was introverted and reading and writing provided an avenue of self-discovery and speech. And so I sat down at the table, and I painted words on a page.


social-readingI can’t imagine giving students advice on writing, without a lecture on how important it is that they read. It is possible to develop a longing for the writing process without having a love for reading at first, but it is my opinion that in order to grow and to nurture this longing, the student must attempt to develop a love for reading. It is not research that teaches one how to write novels and screenplays. It is not fancy degrees and hours of lecture time. Higher education surely helps, but it is not the focal point of learning how to mentally process what it means to write. Reading is in my opinion, the write way. When you sit down to read a book, you’re not just lost in the story, but you are taking in the way that writer is building his world. You learn how to structure dialogue, setting, and character development to name a few, all just by reading. School teaches us the techniques, the mechanics of writing; school teaches us to be conscious of things like mood and tone, but this is not the first time we are introduced to it. Higher Education teaches us to be consciously aware of these things, but we begin using them far before organized instruction. I’ll give you a real life example:

When I was a junior in High School, my AP Lit professor gave us an assignment where we had to write a series of poems using varying poetic techniques, such as imagery for example. When I got my paper back, what caught my attention is a little note from the teacher that read: “Great use of Alliteration!”  It caught my attention because I didn’t even know what that was. Alliteration is basically the repetition of words with the same consonant sound occurring closely together such as: “But a better butter makes a better batter.”

Reading-2But I didn’t know this back then, nor was it ever taught to me. I had to look inside of a dictionary for the meaning of Alliteration because I had never heard of it before, yet I used it here. I used it because it is possible that I read it and picked up on it. As a matter of fact, with all the books I read prior High School I am sure I read it somewhere, and thus stored it in my mental capacity, which I became consciously aware of by way of organized schooling. I still have that paper today and every now and again I look back on my teachers remark for inspiration.

One can surely write their thoughts on a page, but the basics of how to format these thoughts come from reading and learning from others who have already done it. Anyone can take ideas from the head and transcribe them, but to create an entire reading (of whatever form) based solely on desire without having read the works of others, I cannot imagine it. Reading is indeed, the write way.