History of Literacy Laws in America and the Fight in 2022

By Staff Writer Alexandria Azzar

“Education means emancipation. It means light and liberty. It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the light by which men can only be made free. – Frederick Douglass

 One of the most powerful ways to learn is to read. Books have the power to stretch the imagination, to push our thoughts beyond our wildest dreams, to create within the reader a mind for a world outside of their current circumstances. The power of literacy has been evident since the inception of this country. The acknowledgment of this truth was demonstrated in the ideology of euro-american systems that believed that enslaved Africans being able to read was a “danger” to society. Although the first printing press arrived in Massachusetts in 1638 it was not until much later that it was even legal for Black people to read.. Being that the construction of this country was built on the free labor and control of Black people, there was a threat to the white ruling class at large when books were at all accessible to Black people– quite frankly because the knowledge, thus power, held inside of books would potentially disturb the foundation of the whole structure.

Between 1740 and 1834 it was consequently enacted in the law to prevent Black people from reading or congregating to read and write, with the justification being that if the enslaved were to learn to read, it would challenge the institution of slavery itself (which the country heavily relies on.) To continue the institution of slavery and prohibit the widespread learning of literacy among both the enslaved and freedmen, anti literacy laws were passed in a number of states including Alabama, Georgia , Louisiana, Mississippi, Virginia, Missouri, North and South Carolina. One of the laws stated: 

“That all meetings or assemblages of slaves, or free negroes or mulattoes mixing and associating with such slaves at any meeting-house or houses, &c., in the night; or at any SCHOOL OR SCHOOLS for teaching them READING OR WRITING, either in the day or night, under whatsoever pretext, shall be deemed and considered an UNLAWFUL ASSEMBLY; and any justice of a county, &c., wherein such assemblage shall be, either from his own knowledge or the information of others, of such unlawful assemblage, &c., may issue his warrant, directed to any sworn officer or officers, authorizing him or them to enter the house or houses where such unlawful assemblages, &c., may be, for the purpose of apprehending or dispersing such slaves, and to inflict corporal punishment on the offender or offenders, at the discretion of any justice of the peace, not exceeding twenty lashes. “ – Virginia Act against education of slaves of 1819

With the history of restrictions and laws around reading–driven by the ruling class’ fears that it would lead to liberation, revolution, and the deconstruction of unjust cycles–it becomes even more pertinent that we are able to maintain our unrestricted freedom to read. It is crucial that we ensure a sustained principle around the accessibility of books for those who wish to read and to honor the legacy of those who fought to write–especially when it comes to Black readers and writers. Black people fought for this right for access, when we shouldn’t have had to, to begin with. Some of our most influential abolitionists writings such as  David Walker’s Appeal, William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, and Frederick Douglass’ The North Star were used to spread the message of abolition to those who would join the cause but could also speak to the enslaved or formerly enslaved who were forbidden from reading. Future generations’ leaders need access to the same history and literature that continues to inspire and demand progress toward a more just society (disrupting the oppressive infrastructure that has already been established). 

There are many undeniable ways in which reading and writing continue to empower individuals in our society today. When we take a look at history we remember those who lost their lives for the right to read and for the ability to then write. When our enslaved ancestors were freed, one of the first things they did was prioritize literacy. So much so that education literacy rates among Black people rose from 20 percent in 1810 to 70 percent by 1910. Free Black people also set up freedom schools where children could learn to read and write. As a result, it was always the move of the enslaver to control who could read and what they could read to attempt to curtail any forms of pushback to the system that held them in their position. 

Now in 2022, we continue to see attempts to stifle the type of learning that comes through reading, with the push to ban books in Texas by State Rep Matt Krause. In October of 2021,  Krause insisted that if libraries had this list of 850 books, that  it “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.”  This tactic and rhetoric coincides with the strong pushback around critical race theory (CRT) which has been perpetuated by many white conservatives.  Critical race theory is about recognizing and examining the real ways that racial and judicial inequity has been rooted within our systems allowing some to suffer while others inherit “innate” privilege because of it. Critical race theory is not about creating dissension but rather seeks to critique the formation of race itself and to share history in a way that identifies and challenges the ways that racialized laws and systems have created the unjust society that exists today.  Krause and supporters alike are parading this as an attempt to “protect” children but this is nothing more than a rather insidious act to control the paradigm of young people. 

Although for now, this is something that has yet to become widespread– the push for this kind of silencing of voices is dangerous to the society as a whole, it invisibilizes the real oppression. These actions disproportionately impact disenfranchised Black and Brown communities by taking away their access to learn history, to analyze, to dissect, and perhaps the most powerful; to learn and tell their story.  Additionally white children stand to lose the opportunity to be moved by this literature, learning from mistakes of the past and stand as allies for a better future. 

 Recognition of this reality would create an opportunity for real change to happen. The reverse is happening though–there have been continuous protests to ban having CRT taught in schools or anything that exposes and discusses racism and the oppression of marginalized groups. Texas, in particular, is taking it a step further to create a list of books that they want banned from school libraries so that white children do not feel hurt, which comes  at the cost of silencing and ignoring  the reality of the Black experience–  including Black voices, and many other marginalized voices that  adolescents could relate to.  This is what’s at stake. The argument of whether or not critical race theory should be in schools is not just about the banning of books , it is about whitewashing a history to portray a less violent, idealistic facade that this country was founded on. In the words of Frederick Douglass…“ Education means emancipation”.

Why is this important? It is vital that we ensure that the stories are not shut out again, especially by the very laws and systems of which it is addressing. For progress to happen it is necessary to have the uncomfortable and accountable conversations that for many, is not just a distant conversation, but a real lived experience. It is the voice of the young Black girl who was pushed out of school for talking back to her teachers; It was Ruby Bridges who was harassed by her white counterparts just for trying to go to school, and it is the stories of the Black boys who face a white society who seems to only wait for their death. It is the voices of those whose lives were taken at the hands of the state that we cannot afford to have silenced because it is their voices who we must learn from to create a better world today.

The fight to ensure that books addressing issues of race, class, and student rights are kept in our schools is a larger fight. The fight that says that just because  it could potentially make white people feel uncomfortable, speaks to the privilege and how laws can be tailored for the comfort of those who do not want to challenge a system that was made for their benefit. Whereas it negates those who are left behind in this system particularly Black people and potential allies and abolitionists who would stand alongside us. 

We at BOP value the political education that is gained by books and are honoring the spirit and intention of this by creating spaces such as our BOP Book Club where we can make most of the history, knowledge and experience residing in the pages of countless books. Let’s continue to push and create a society where we strive to hear the voices that have been silenced, so we can change the systems that seek to perpetuate those injustices. Instead, let’s contribute to  a new world that is libratory and encompasses all voices.

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