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When I Can Read My Title Clear: Literacy, Slavery, and Religion in the Antebellum South.

When I Can Read My Title Clear: Literacy, Slavery, and Religion in the Antebellum South. By Janet Duitsman Cornelius (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1991. xiii plus 215 pp. $29.95).

Janet Duitsman Cornelius's book examines one of the most difficult issues within the history of black slavery, that of slave identity. Cornelius does so by assessing the level of literacy among slaves and its significance to them, hypothesizing that literacy "was a mechanism for forming identity, the freedom to become a person" (p. 2). This is an important topic--a remarkably neglected one. Cornelius's assertion about the relation between literacy and slave identity should remain a key question within African-American history and southern history, though her own treatment falls short of a full assessment of the problem of slave literacy.

The book focuses on the relationship between religion and slave literacy and has two themes, white ambivalence over slave literacy and black persistence in pursuing it. In the English-speaking Protestant tradition, reading scripture was necessary for true religious understanding; antebellum slaves, despite the fact that up to 90 percent of them were illiterate, agreed with this contention and wanted to learn to read. In explaining obstacles to slave literacy, Cornelius tellingly highlights the tension in slaveholders' beliefs: a post-Reformation conviction that every human should study God's word warred with an Anglo-American tendency to denigrate Africans and African-Americans as not fully human. Slaveholders, too, were wary of slave literacy for its power to challenge their own authority; a slave who could read would know when a white was lying about the Bible or about a newspaper headline, and a slave who could write would be able to forge documents to facilitate escape. Despite attempts on the part of church leaders--black and white, northern and southern--to link instruction in reading to religious instruction, most southern states discouraged or even outlawed teaching reading and writing to slaves. Southerners' conservatism, unsurprisingly, increased during episodes of sectional tension (especially after 1850) and after any slave conspiracies or rebellions came to light.

Religious instruction of slaves became, therefore, a thorny question and slaves' acquisition of literacy a surreptitious process. Cornelius reveals the libertarian streak in many slaveholders by recounting how they insisted on their right to teach slaves to read--even if this activity flew in the face of racialist justifications for the peculiar institution. She excels at portraying the determination of slaves to learn to read: by bribing free southerners to assist them; by picking up fragments of knowledge from street signs and scraps of paper; by learning alongside white children who were still unaware of or indifferent to their culture's shibboleths. Most movingly, Cornelius relates the exhilaration slaves felt when they first realized they could read, and argues that this experience was a doorway to a more liberated consciousness.

This last assessment is troubling. On the level of individual slave experience Cornelius is probably right, though I regret that she did not spend more time establishing the mentalite of suddenly literate and liberated slaves. On the level of the slave community, literacy's impact is less clear. True, literate slaves fulfilled what other scholars of slavery have labelled mediating roles--they read and interpreted for other slaves, providing news from purloined newspapers, details of scripture, and information useful in dealing with whites. But Cornelius is surely wrong to claim that it was only through literacy that slaves acquired a sense of identity, either as readers or as members of a community with access to the printed word. Were illiterate slaves really less aware than literate counterparts that their condition was unjust? Were they devoid of personal identity? More likely they had a different sense of themselves and of their bondage than did literate slaves.

Literacy, too, may have divided the slave community as much as it provided corporate strength. Slaves able to mediate between their fellows and their white owners now had a kind of power that might elicit resentment from illiterate slaves less able to negotiate with whites and white culture. One white man observed how black religious instructors, rather than white preachers, were "'the real wire pullers'" in black churches (p. 97); Cornelius fails to see how wire pulling by some slaves could have insidious implications for others.

Cornelius does best when she focuses on particular questions and episodes. Her decision to use South Carolina as a case study of the debate over slave education pays off--that state was nothing if not a bundle of contradictions, and its assortment of proliteracy whites, proslavery hotheads, determined slaves, and cautiously literate free blacks displayed, in microcosm, the nation's own dilemma. In other places, Cornelius lacks analytic focus and covers tricky points too quickly. She spends too much time going over the secondary literature on southern religion when she would have been better advised to get on with her own story. The question of whether mulatto children were more or less likely to be educated by their white fathers merits only a paragraph (p. 77), the statement that white women were helpful to slaves eager to learn to read is not balanced by scholarship that questions the kindness of southern women (p. 108), and the issue of whether literate slaves could better combat postbellum coercion (they could read the fine print in labor and tenancy contracts) is similarly neglected (p. 143). Because of the focus on religion, the secular dimension of slave literacy is frustratingly elusive. Cornelius discusses slave narratives (the book begins with Frederick Douglass' famous description of how he learned to read) but she makes no contribution to the growing scholarship on this genre. A pity, as the slave narrative was the best evidence of slaves' desire to achieve standing in a literate culture. It was also a genre that stood partway between religious and secular writing and revealed slaves' interest in American politics and political theory. Cornelius gives tantalizing examples of this interest when she recounts how slaves read newspapers about topics like Henry Clay's sentiments on slavery or John Brown's execution. She does not explain, however, whether desire for political information might have been as significant as religious piety in motivating slaves to read.

It is for these reasons that Cornelius's book seems incomplete. She states her hope "that my work will lead further explorations by others" (p. 6). With the pathbreaking work she has already done, Cornelius herself would be best qualified to push forward understanding of literacy and American slavery.

Joyce E. Chaplin Vanderbilt University
COPYRIGHT 1993 Journal of Social History
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Author:Chaplin, Joyce E.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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