"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is one of the spirituals associated with the Underground Railroad. The earliest known recording was in 1909, by the Fisk Jubilee Singers of Fisk University. The connections between Fisk, slavery, and the Underground Railroad made this seem like the perfect soundtrack for this webpage.
Few people who were not right in the midst of the scenes can form any exact idea of the intense desire which the people of my race showed for education. It was a whole race trying to go to school. Few were too young, and none too old, to make the attempt to learn. As fast as any kind of teachers could be secured, not only were day-schools filled, but night-schools as well. The great ambition of the older people was to try to learn to read the Bible before they died. With this end in view, men and women who were fifty and seventy-five years old, would be found in night-schools. Sunday-schools were formed soon after freedom, but the principal book studied in the Sunday-school was the spelling-book. Day-school, night-school, and Sunday-school were always crowded, and often many had to be turned away for want of room.
Theme II, "They Want Efx": Centering the Roles of Black Language and Literacy, begins with the 18th and 19th centuries and a very important text: Self-Taught by Andrea Williams. Without at least a nod in the direction of this foundational history, we cannot possibly richly contextualize Black language, literacy, and rhetoric in the 20th and 21st centuries.
A significant stream of research challenges the once strongly-held belief that enslaved Africans simply mimicked white slaveowners’ language, mores, and values or were so desolate and isolated that they had no expressions of their own. While Frederick Douglass’s struggles for literacy are legendary in literary, literacy, and writing studies, a deliberate and conscious connection to literacy during slavery--- which was both celebratory and suspicious --- was not exclusive to the extraordinary life and works of Douglass alone. Reward advertisements for runaway slaves, interviews with former slaves, slaveowners’ diaries, individual biographies, records of abolitionist schools, clandestine activities of African American freedmen/freedwomen’s schools, the work of religious societies, and stories that came to light during Reconstruction all reveal complex relationships to and acquisitions of literacy for enslaved Africans that defy any notion that literate slaves were rare or few in number. The connections between literacy, democracy, equality, and the status of African Americans have always been intimately intertwined ” .
It was the demands made by African Americans for free, public education that became the impetus for the system of public education that was established in the United States after the Civil War. Up until that point, public education as we know it today, did not exist . Newly emancipated African Americans had the clearest agenda and sense of importance of education and thus, cleared the path for everyone else to have access to public education. As Horace Mann Bond noted, no other group strove for education, and especially literacy, as much as bBlack people after the Civil War. African American men who had enlisted in the Union army became teachers in local communities when the Civil War ended, started their own schools, bought their own books, and hired their own teachers. Even those schools officially labeled American missionary schools were rightly Freedpeople’s schools given the role formerly enslaved Africans played in conceiving the schools, building them, and paying for their attendance there. Adults, some as old as 108, attended school with their children and grandchildren and, in essence, initiated the adult education movement. In Savannah, Georgia alone, formerly enslaved subjects became Black ministers and created their own Black Education Association; they started over 100 schools within two years, controlling their own curriculum design and teacher hiring and training. Archaeologists 100 years after slavery were still surprised that they found so many pencils and writing slates in the slave cabins they excavated. Literacy was “how you constructed yourself as a free person.”
Heather Williams’s book, Self-Taught, critically situates these issues by covering the history of what can, arguably, only be described as the most triumphant and valiant struggle for education and literacy in the United States. As you read chapter one from Self-Taught, ask yourself these questions:
- What difference does this history make?
- What difference does my hearing and seeing this history make?
- What does this history have to do with African American rhetoric and/or African American philosophies of communication?