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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Literacy and Complicity

I’m reading an amazing book at the moment called Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery. After 155 pages of terrible stories that none of us learned in school, I finally got to the chapter called “Hated Heros,” which included two stories that jumped out at me.

First was the tale of Prudence Crandall who started a Connecticut school for girls (white girls, it went without saying) in 1831. When a free black woman asked to attend, Prudence consulted her Bible and landed on a passage that talked about comforting the oppressed. She admitted the young woman and, after most of the white students withdrew in protest, decided to specialize in educating “young ladies and little misses of color.” After multiple threats of violence and a court case that foreshadowed the Dred Scott decision, the school was destroyed by an angry mob, and the teacher was driven to move to Kansas.

The second was the tale of Elijah Lovejoy, a St. Louis minister who also ran a newspaper. For most of his life, Lovejoy was a gradualist, believing that slavery should end “someday.” But the minister was transformed when he saw the burnt body of a free black man who had been killed by a mob. His editorials became more urgent and abolitionist, his criticisms of those who kept silent about slavery more pointed. After offended whites destroyed his printing press, Lovejoy moved to Illinois and got another one. Before it had printed a single paper, however, an angry mob killed the minister and hacked the printing press to pieces.

There are probably many lessons in these stories, but what struck me was the power of literacy. That a school for black females and a printing press could inspire such fear and anger is a testimony to the power of the written word. The defenders of slavery knew it was important to control who could read and who could write. They were willing to kill for that control.

Nearly two centuries later, I think about what has changed, and what hasn’t in the US. Legal segregation of schools ended over fifty years ago, and there is now free public education for all. But that education is often sub-standard, and it’s still black students who are most likely to be shut out of literacy. Just now on the noon news, I heard that two students were shot on their way to school this morning in one of Philadelphia’s black neighborhoods. That doesn’t sound like an optimal learning environment.

Likewise, we have a “free press,” at least compared to China and Zimbabwe. But in reality the major media outlets are owned by a few powerful corporations who still have an interest in what gets said. The Internet is a refreshing alternative, at least for those with access to computers. If anyone were to destroy my laptop to prevent me from blogging, I could always log on at the local library. Still, I have a smaller audience than Elijah Lovejoy had in the 1830s.

I don’t think I’ve conveyed to my children the privilege and power of literacy, but after reading Complicity I think I will. Luke’s reading is improving, but it’s still a struggle—not nearly as much fun as climbing on the car. Megan now likes to read, but for her it’s entertainment, nothing more. I want them to realize what they are getting along with their education: access to information, opportunity, and a public voice, which includes the ability and the responsibility to speak up for what is right.


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