Greetings! First, I’d like to thank you for coming along with me into the deep journey that is my mind – and musings.
Second, if you are Black, (with all encouragement to continue reading if you are another race), I want to awaken you to the power that is your ability to comprehend the words you’re reading – an act, in itself, of Black Resistance.
As the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) examines Black Resistance, it is important to consider “Black Literacy” as a form of protest and triumph in the journey for freedom and equity.
What is Literacy?
Cambridge Dictionary defines “literacy,” as “the ability to read and write.” Other research further defines literacy as the mastery to communicate and comprehend symbols, but for the purposes of this conversation, let’s look at the first definition.
As the old adage and oldest children’s literacy nonprofit in the nation touts, “Reading is Fundamental.”
Reading and Writing While Black
In 1739, an amendment to South Carolina’s Negro Act prohibited teaching enslaved Black people to read and write – a crime that was punishable with a $100 fine and six months in prison.
In 1829 in Georgia, and in 1830 in Louisiana and North Carolina, laws were passed to punish, fine, imprison and even flog those who encouraged African American literacy.
Then came the literate Nat Turner, a preacher, who in 1831, famously organized the deadliest, and arguably, most important, slave rebellion in history. From Aug. 21-23, 1831, Turner and about 70 free and enslaved African Americans went around Southampton, Virginia free- ing enslaved Black people and killing between 55 and 65 white people.
While retaliation included murdering 120 free and enslaved Black people, legislators also found ways to suppress African Americans – making literacy illegal.
In 1832, Virginia and Alabama passed laws preventing white people from teaching African Americans to read. In addition, throughout states many laws were passed preventing African Americans from working in reading or writing jobs or even assembling.
According to History.com, it is estimated that only 10 percent of enslaved African Americans were literate.
Black Literacy as Black Resistance
Despite the illegal nature of reading and writing, and the few folks who could even do so, there were African Americans who risked retribution understanding literacy as a weapon to fight oppression.
In 1827 the first Black newspaper, the “Freedom’s Journal,” was published. As a member of the Black press, the audacity of its publishers to begin that publication 196 years ago excites me about the legacy in which I work and live.
A literate Frederick Douglass, not only escaped slavery, but in 1845, 20 years before the end of the Civil War, published his celebrated autobiography “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.” Douglass was also a member of the Black press, publishing his first abolitionist newspaper, the “North Star,” in 1847.
Don’t even get me started on the audaciousness of educating Black students. Pennsylvania kicked things off with the first HBCU in 1837 at Cheyney University and in 1854, when Lincoln University, the first degree-granting HBCU, was established. By 1856 in Ohio, Wilberforce was established as the first Black-owned and -operated university. In 1865, the South got its first HBCU in Shaw University, located in North Carolina.
When considering the bravery it took to be an African American who could read and write, and those who had the courage to actually exercise that expertise by publishing works, learning and educating – that’s bold, that’s power, that’s Black Resistance.