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


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Indeed, an individual’s empowerment from literacy resulted in resistance against their slave masters. The very act of reading and writing symbolized an act of resistance against their keepers. Knowledge from newspapers regarding abolition and progress of the Union Army only served to bolster a sense of optimism. Additionally, the ability to write equated into a sense of privacy for many slaves, who had depended previously upon a third party to communicate for them. Some slaves felt challenged by their owner’s attempts to keep literacy from their reach. Frederick Douglass credits his strong desire to learn from his master’s objection, “If you give a nigger an inch, he take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master---to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now if you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.”14
Without doubt, the plight of the slave was unimaginable. The institution of slavery fought the slave along every step towards emancipation. Nevertheless, the human instinct to learn and adapt inspired many slaves to improve their circumstances through literacy. The basic skills of reading and writing pierced the many motivations that slaves incorporated in acquiring their freedom. As a result, I believe that slave literacy represented the vital ‘key’ for personal mobility and freedom. Indeed, that key opened many doors of opportunity. Once that key is turned, that door can never be locked again. Consequently, the rattle of chains became silenced in part by the power of literacy.


1 Heather Andrea Williams, Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 13-14.

2 Janet D. Cornelius, “We Slipped and Learned to Read: Slave Accounts of the Literacy Process, 1835-1865,” Phylon, Vol. 44, No. 3 (2005): 174.

3 James Melton, Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1988), 190.

4 Cornelius., 179.

5 Ibid., 179.

6 Ibid., 182.

7 Ibid., 172.

8 Ibid., 174.

9 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, ed. Paul Lauter. Vol. 1, 4th ed., The Heath Anthology of American Literature. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1838.

10 Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, eds. Nellie Y. McKay, and Frances Smith Foster, (New York: Dover Publications, 2001), 39.

11 Cornelius, 183.

12 Ibid., 183.

13 Williams., 22.

14 Douglass, 1838.



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