Uncovering the history of African American women’s literacy

Published 9:22 am Thursday, February 23, 2023

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Reading and writing are privileges that I sometimes take for granted. Writing is therapy for me and reading stimulates me in ways no other activity can.  My motivation to read and write is amplified when I think about the number of African-American women who were legally denied rights but were fortunate enough to excel anyway.  Despite anti-literacy laws that were in effect centuries before me, it gives me great pride to know about two women who excelled at reading and writing and made history while doing it.

Tonya Sinclair Swindell

When thinking about the implications of anti-literacy laws, or laws put in place between 1740 and 1834 that prohibited slaves and former slaves from reading and writing, one must consider reasons why such laws were enacted. Knowledge is power.  And when access to knowledge is denied, so is the power to effectively change one’s situation. 

Although blacks were ingenious enough to pass down information in multiple ways including through the use of oral history, songs, quilt making and symbolism, not allowing slaves and former slaves to read and write hindered their ability to communicate ideas in a deeper, more effective way.  Anti-literacy laws also gave slave owners greater control.  Such control added to the dependency with which blacks were made to rely on whites for their livelihood, well-being and education.  In light of those circumstances, it is amazing to consider how black women overcame the odds.

Phyllis Wheatley and Harriett Jacobs were two African-American female authors recognized in history not only because of their race and gender but also because of their status as former slaves. According to www.womenshistory.org, Phyllis Wheatley was born around 1753 in Gambia, Africa before being captured by slave traders and brought to America in 1761.  She was sold to the Wheatley family of Boston, Massachusetts. Despite spending much of her life as an enslaved person, Wheatley is recognized as the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry which was titled, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.” The book included a foreword by John Hancock and other Boston notables.  Ms. Wheatley was emancipated from slavery shortly after publishing her book.

According to Wikipedia, Harriett Ann Jacobs, was born in 1813 or 1815 in Edenton, North Carolina. She was a former enslaved woman who, like Wheatley, learned to read and write from members of her owner’s family. Jacobs wrote about her life as a slave and managed to get her autobiography published in 1861 under the pseudonym Linda Brent. The title of her book was “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.”  It is an excellent book that is even more endearing to me because most of the pivotal events of Jacobs’ story occurred a short distance from the Hampton Roads area.

Reading and writing has become therapy for me — an opportunity to learn, grow and express my emotions in a safe space while helping others.  Those skills are especially significant because of my knowledge that African-American women like myself did not always have the privilege to learn them.  Therefore, I appreciate the fortitude, tenacity and bravery with which Phyllis Wheatley, Harriett Jacobs and others made meaningful strides in those areas.  Their accomplishments also encourage me to improve, develop and excel in the areas of reading and writing.

TONYA SINCLAIR SWINDELL is a writer, poet and mental health occupational therapist. She is author of Nourishment & Encouragement: Poetry For Your Mind, Body and Soul (www.teacher-withapen.com). Tonya can be reached at tonyathewriter1@gmail.com.