Dreamers of the Ghetto
Dreamers of the Ghetto
This chapter does not pretend to offer a complete history of the African-American common reader. It only sketches in a few outlines of a much bigger story. But when that history is written, it will inevitably have to confront this painful contradiction. The woman who did more than any contemporary American to promote reading was raised by a mother who hated books. For an explanation, we might begin by looking to Frederick Douglass’s classic autobiography. Once he realized that most slave-owners feared black literacy, “I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom,” and determined, “at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.” He developed strategies to acquire literacy surreptitiously, offering bread to poor white boys in return for reading lessons. And in The Columbian Orator, an anthology of great speeches, he found inspirational literature that spoke directly to his condition, in particular Sheridan’s philippics for Catholic emancipation. However, later he fell into the hands of a more brutal master, who completely (but temporarily) broke his desire to read: “My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!” In another slave narrative, Leonard Black testified that when he bought something to read, his master “made me sick of books by beating me like a dog . . . He whipped me so very severely that he overcame my thirst for knowledge, and I relinquished its pursuit,” at least until he escaped from bondage. So there were two possible and polar opposite responses to the terror campaign against black readers. One was to acquire literacy at all costs and by any means necessary. “I do begrudge your education,” admitted a black steamboat steward as he served lunch to a white college student. “I would steal your learning if I could.”4 But others internalized the whippings and developed a fear of and aversion to books. These are both legacies of slavery, and they both survived far beyond the slave era.
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