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Book Review: "When I Can Read My Title Clear"

History of Reading News. Vol.XVI No.1 (1992:Fall)
by Cecilia MCall

When I Can Read My Title Clear: Literacy, Slavery, and Religion in the Antebellum South, by Janet Duitsman Cornelius. Columbus, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1991. Pp. 215. Bibliography, Index. $34.95.

Janet Duitsman Cornelius's small book is a carefully researched and extensively documented addition to the growing body of literature about slave literacy. Drawing upon such familiar sources as biographical slave narratives and the Federal Writers Project (FWP), interviews conducted for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930's, Cornelius recounts the struggle of the enslaved to become literate. It was a compulsion so strong that many of them risked their lives to achieve book learning. Though Cornelius notes that there were various definitions of literacy during that period, she states that ten percent of the slaves in the antebellum south had some ability to read and write. This figure, first established by Carter G. Woodson, is twice that usually cited.

The relationship between religion and literacy is underscored in this book. The role of the Anglican Church's Thomas Bray and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel is mentioned, as is the heroic and stubborn insistence of the Quakers to teach even in the face of personal danger. However, Cornelius's account of Catholic efforts in the venture and their establishment of schools in South Carolina is a contribution to the field. That a mob of Charlestonians attempted to lynch the Catholic Bishop, John England, for establishing a free school for blacks is an ironic contrast to the riots instigated in New York City by Catholics in protest of conscription into the Union Army. A school in Charleston presently boasts Bishop England's name.

According to Cornelius, the act of becoming literate was an act of defiance and resistance in that it facilitated the creation of a liberated religious consciousness. A religious consciousness resulted from the ability to read the Bible independently of authorities who selected passages that admonished enslaved people to be obedient. Once literate slaves had access to the entire Testament, not simply the passages deemed appropriate by others, they could interpret the Bible from the point of view of the oppressed. Liberated from the master's religion, literate black preachers shaped a religion for their people.

Cornelius related the slaves' consciousness of understanding words and their independence in the act of understanding print to contemporary theory about literacy. For some, the "click of comprehension" occurred while attempting to understand newspaper accounts of the antislavery movement. The need for information about the freedom movement impelled the making of meaning. A similar urgency was described in Paulo Freire's pedagogy for the Latin Americans.

Not only did Bible literacy establish black men in the roles of preacher and teacher, it also gave black women access to roles in the field of education. The underplaying of the role of women as seekers of and contributors to enlightenment is a weakness in this book. Cornelius cites accounts of male slaves paying children and others to tutor them and states they purchased books for that purpose. Skilled male slaves were frequently "hired out," earning additional income for the master and themselves. One must wonder how much learning would have occurred if slaves had been unable to provide the fees.

Female slaves may not have earned money at the same rate as men. This reviewer is aware of few accounts of black women being hired out. However, free and enslaved black women did become literate and did teach in clandestine schools on plantations and in adjacent towns. For instance, in her narrative Susan King Taylor mentions a school conducted by a freed woman, a friend of Susan's enslaved grandmother. Susan and other slave children had to conceal their books from the authorities as they walked to town lest they be seized and punished for having such possessions.

Though the title indicates that the book is about literacy in the Antebellum South, the author largely limited her account to the community of freed and enslaved "negroes" of Charleston, South Carolina. She refers to them as African Americans, the parlance of the contemporary scene. "Colored" or "negro" are more accurate terms for that time.

Reviewed by Cecilia MCall, Deputy Chair of Academic Skills, Baruch College of CUNY.




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