The Chains of Literacy: Slave Literacy in the Antebellum United States

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The Chains of Literacy:

Slave Literacy in the Antebellum United States

By R.L. Martinez

Slave owners feared insurrection from their large slave populations. Incidents such as the Nat Turner revolt in 1842 only fueled their apprehensions. For their part, the slave owners implemented various methods to control their slaves. Plantation owners controlled slave education as one means to pacify and control their slaves. Additionally, many Southern states passed anti-literacy laws that prohibited the instruction of reading and writing for slaves. Despite all these obstacles, what motivated the slave to acquire literacy?
The individual slave could not hope to attain a higher station in life. To the contrary, a slave who possessed the skills of reading and writing often faced grave personal danger. Was the motivation social, economic, religious, or merely a personal quest? Or is it possible that the pursuit of knowledge was more instinctual? As babies we initially learn sensory and motor skills. During our growth process, we continue to acquire vast amounts of knowledge necessary for continual survival. The thirst for knowledge is a fundamental instinct of man’s existence on this planet. This primal yearning could not be contained by the shackles of slavery. As individuals, the slaves displayed various tactics and motivations for obtaining the white man’s literacy.
Slave owners placed numerous obstacles in the way of slaves gaining the skills of reading and writing. Primarily, they believed that a formal education only confused the ‘simple minds’ of their charges. Additionally, the slave owners believed that unrestrained literacy invited subversive and rebellious behavior. Slave owners utilized their Christian religion to teach slaves their appropriate “divine roles” in society. Slave owners would share passages from the Bible that would reinforce the Southern white hierarchy. That role called for slaves to serve their masters. In any case, the Southern masters prescribed to the old adage that ‘ignorance’ equated to bliss.

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