You may not be thinking about it, but just in reading this post, you’re exhibiting a great amount of privilege: you can read.
I’m sure you don’t think about what a special gift literacy is, but in a world where 14 percent of the world’s population is illiterate, it really is a gift. That 14 percent is 107 million people, or, if you think about the US having slightly more than 330 million, that’s like a third of all Americans. What if one third of America couldn’t read? (I know, I know, half of America is about that stupid…) If that portion of our country couldn’t read, it would mean oppression and control in a way none of us alive today can imagine. But we all know of a time when a group of people was barred from learning to read: the years before the Civil War. Not only did slave owners prevent their slaves from learning to read, laws such as the South Carolina Act of 1740 existed to make it illegal.
I always start my Literature of Revolution class with a section on poetry, and one of the poets we encounter is Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Born in Maryland to free Black parents in 1825, Harper used her position, education and life to work as an abolitionist, educator, writer and suffragist.
We read two of Harper’s poems in this class, “The Slave Auction” and “Learning To Read” and students tell me how much these two poems shock and move them. “I can’t imagine not being able to read,” they say, even if they don’t like reading. The speaker’s experience in both of these poems gives them perspective and sometimes introduces them (anew perhaps) to the reality that some people have been purposefully kept in the dark when it comes to literacy.
If you haven’t explored Harper’s works, I encourage you to do so now. She is one of the first Black females to have her creative works published; in 1859 a short story, “The Two Offers” was published by the Anglo-African. Another champion of Black literacy was Frederick Douglass, who, once he learned to read, found both joy and despair in it. Joy in what he could access through books and papers, but despair in what the lack of literacy meant for other Blacks.
I know the ability to read is something I take for granted on many occasions, but as I go on my own journey to be better educated and more aware of Black history this month, I’m in awe of people like Harper and Douglass who grew up acutely aware of what a privilege it was to have this cornerstone of education and freedom.
If you’re looking to unwrap the gift of literacy a little more, why not present yourself (bad jokes are a gift too, aren’t they?) with some other Black authors. Thrift Books has put together a nice list here, pulling from books they offer. Author Faith Adiele and several other California authors offer a list of their own here.