What does race have to do with the ability to read and write?

In the article “When I Can Read My Title Clear,” Cornelius discusses how slaves had the desire to learn to read and write but were punished when their owners found out. They had to be extremely secretive about learning to read and write because the punishments were extremely severe. For example, Henry Wright’s father learned to read with the help of his master’s son, which he was told to keep to himself, because if the white men in the community found out one of the slaves could read and write, they would cut his fingers off. These severe punishments instilled fear in many, but also promoted secretive learning among those whose “sympathetic owners” allowed them to learn.

My question regarding this reading is why do you think slave owners were so afraid of the slaves learning to read and write? From what we have discussed in class, reading and writing seems to be a positive thing; it is something that promotes mental growth and forward, critical thinking. It is an outlet for us to release our deepest thoughts and calm the mind. Do you think the answer to this question revolves around power? Equal rights? Or do you think it is something broader or more personal than that?

3 thoughts on “What does race have to do with the ability to read and write?”

  1. We have discussed with this text, and earlier texts in the class that literacy is power. In the case of slaves and slave owners, literacy as power is incredibly dangerous to maintaining the dynamic the slave owners preferred. As it discusses in the article, the ability to write could allow slaves to escape by forging passes given by their owners. This is the most easily seen benefit of learning how to write for slaves, but was a major disadvantage for slave owners. The process of pass keeping only had meaning if the slave owners were the only ones with the ability to create the passes.

    Another part of slaves learning literacy, gave them the ability to read things like the bible that could give slaves concrete reasoning behind why humans should not be treated the way they are day after day. Slaves reading texts like these was dangerous on there own, however the ability to write about the ideas they receive from these books, allowed word to spread to those that did not even have access to these texts.

    I believe the immediate dangers of literacy on both sides of slavery was an increased chance of freedom for slaves. In a prolonged sense giving slaves more education (which was only accessible through text in most cases) made them more threatening to the slave trade in general.

  2. In my personal opinion, I think that the fear the slaves owners had in their slaves learning to read is similar to the fear of punishment of the slaves if they learned to read and write. What exactly do I mean by this? Well I’m not trying to equate their level of fears, because obviously the consequences were much more dire for the slaves. What I am talking about is the mythos surrounding the consequences of literacy. The slave losing his finger is an example that created the mythos. The article mentioned that there were not that many instances of slaves actually suffering amputations, but the fear surrounding the “legend” of slaves losing fingers was enough of a deterrent to convince many more slaves not to read.
    This is the type of thinking that I am trying to convey when I mention that the fear between slaves and slave owners is similar. I think that the relatively few examples of slaves being able to use literacy to write their own passes and escape to freedom create a sort of “legend” that spread throughout the slaves owners of the south and this legend created a mass fear of slaves learning to read among the slave owners.
    When you asked if the question revolves around power, my response is, yes, it definitely does. It goes beyond just the literal power of learning literacy but to power of literacy to create and spread mythos.

  3. I feel the answer to that question is definitely a balance between two of the factors you mention before: that being power, but also somewhat personal. From the power perspective, I think it is important to realize that reading and writing is absolutely a source of strength among oppressed groups. The ability to read is one thing as a self-empowering exercise, but writing allows for communication in tandem with reading and hence allows for mobilization. So naturally, slave-owners would have a strong, rational incentive to keep these groups from having access to literacy in all its facets. But I also agree that there was a personal aspect to it as well. Barring the rare exceptions of “benevolent” slave owners, I think there was definitely a superiority complex involved. I’m inclined to think of the Confederate soldier from the Civil War who, when asked why he was fighting, said “if you can’t be better than a negro, who can you be better than?” So, the bar to access of literacy was likely a combination of factors.

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