The Chains of Literacy: Slave Literacy in the Antebellum United States By R.L. Martinez
Slave owners feared insurrection from their large slave populations. Incidents such as the Nat Turner revolt in 1842 only fueled their apprehensions. For their part, the slave owners implemented various methods to control their slaves. Plantation owners controlled slave education as one means to pacify and control their slaves. Additionally, many Southern states passed anti-literacy laws that prohibited the instruction of reading and writing for slaves. Despite all these obstacles, what motivated the slave to acquire literacy?
The individual slave could not hope to attain a higher station in life. To the contrary, a slave who possessed the skills of reading and writing often faced grave personal danger. Was the motivation social, economic, religious, or merely a personal quest? Or is it possible that the pursuit of knowledge was more instinctual? As babies we initially learn sensory and motor skills. During our growth process, we continue to acquire vast amounts of knowledge necessary for continual survival. The thirst for knowledge is a fundamental instinct of man’s existence on this planet. This primal yearning could not be contained by the shackles of slavery. As individuals, the slaves displayed various tactics and motivations for obtaining the white man’s literacy……..
…………… Without doubt, the plight of the slave was unimaginable. The institution of slavery fought the slave along every step towards emancipation. Nevertheless, the human instinct to learn and adapt inspired many slaves to improve their circumstances through literacy. The basic skills of reading and writing pierced the many motivations that slaves incorporated in acquiring their freedom. As a result, I believe that slave literacy represented the vital ‘key’ for personal mobility and freedom. Indeed, that key opened many doors of opportunity. Once that key is turned, that door can never be locked again. Consequently, the rattle of chains became silenced in part by the power of literacy.
Full Document: The Chains of Literacy