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Ideas Are Tools, and Words Can Heal
An African American History of Literacy and Liberation, and What Their Words Mean for Us All
In response to underresourced Mississippi public schools, black activists started Freedom Schools in the summer of 1964. The voluntary program backfilled primary education and ensured black students could read, engage debate, and acquire necessary skills for future leadership.
“Encouraging student participation was central to the basic Freedom School design,” writes UNC Chapel Hill professor William Sturkey in his remarkable essay on the effort, collected in Ideas in Unexpected Places: Reimagining Black Intellectual History, edited by Brandon R. Byrd, Leslie M. Alexander, and Russell Rickford.
Bridging the Gap
More than forty schools across Mississippi hosted 2,500–3,000 students in the program. Within just a couple of weeks many of those students organized and published a dozen different newspapers, using donated typewriters and mimeograph machines. Most of the writers were between eleven and thirteen years old.
“Decades of racial oppression had left Mississippi with only five African-American newspapers by the mid-1950s,” says Sturkey, “and only one of these, the Jackson-based Eagle Eye, publicly supported early [civil rights] movement activities.” In stepped Freedom School students at a critical moment.
Distributed in grocery stores, churches, and locally owned black businesses, Freedom School newspapers were sometimes the only “movement coverage” in a community. Articles hit topics such as organizing, canvassing, and the cause driving their activism.
“I want to be able to vote when I am twenty-one,” wrote one girl in a published statement to Mississippi Governor Paul B. Johnson. “And I want to be a first-class citizen.”
Given the inflow of help from outside the state, the tone could be optimistic despite the considerable odds. “This year the people from all over the United States have come to help us,” wrote a young woman named Mary. “All we can say is, we want freedom; everybody wants freedom. So, people, lift up your head and let your light shine. Let’s begin to act like human beings.”
Sturkey’s account reveals the cultural chasm whites engineered between black Americans and the equality, citizenship, and human dignity they deserved. It also shows, along with many other essays in Ideas in Unexpected Places, how blacks leveraged language, literacy, and intellectual enterprise to bridge the gap and claim their rightful inheritance has humans and citizens of the country.
Adopt and Adapt
Formal and informal education has always served as a primary tool of emancipation and equality for black Americans. “The written word was fundamental to advancing Black intellectual activism,” says Wellesley professor Kellie Carter-Jackson. “The written word operated as both a sword in defense of Black humanity, and as a strategic weapon for condemning, racist, arguments and practices.”
Before Emancipation, slave narratives and other compositions galvanized abolitionist opinion and set the terms of public debate. In his essay “Black Intellectual History in the Period of Abolition before Abolition,” University of Maryland professor Vincent Carretta explores and contrasts the messages of memoirist Olaudah Equinano, poet Phillis Wheatley, orator Frederick Douglass, and others.
University of Virginia professor Angel Adams Parham, writing in another volume, The Black Intellectual Tradition, also covers the work of Equinano, Wheatley, and Douglass, bringing their voices into conversation with figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and novelist Toni Morrison.
“Such writers offer an invitation to all, regardless of their background, to enter into the pain of the past and to discern the traces of that pain in the present,” Parham says. And why would we want to do that, exactly? Parham offers two reasons: “(1) our high esteem for the truth and (2) the importance of reviving the individual and corporate practice of lament.”
As for the first reason, history that glosses over the sins of the past cannot instruct. “It paints perfect men and noble nations,” as W. E. B. Du Bois said, “but it does not tell the truth.” And for the second? “Many writers within the Black intellectual tradition take us through the darkest chapters of our history,” says Parham, “calling us not only to look and see, but to feel and grieve with them.” The ability to reach out of ourselves and into the experience of another is a precondition of reconciliation and, hopefully, healing.
Whether it’s the students in the Freedom School newspapers or Phillis Wheatley and her poetry, what’s striking are the tools of this liberating project. Wheatley, Douglass, and the rest commandeered the rhetorical devices and literary traditions of the majority white educational establishment to serve their own ends: asserting their dignity, staking claims to their liberty, and, as time passed, securing and extending those freedoms.
The rhetorical power of MLK and Malcolm X alike follow interweaving trails through the black church and the western literary canon, both of which feature traditions adopted and adapted to ends that often surprised and sometimes scandalized the wider culture with powerful effect.
Little Protest Songs
Hollis Robbins is dean of humanities at the University of Utah and a specialist in African American literature. (I quoted her earlier this week when addressing the state of the humanities.) In her book Forms of Contention, She traces a fascinating example of this adopt-and-adapt approach through generations of black writers by focusing on one literary form: the sonnet.
Raised to its heights by poets such as Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Shakespeare, you’d be hard pressed to imagine a literary form less inherently “black” than the sonnet. A product of Renaissance Europe, the “little song” is noted for its rigid structure and rules. Robbins provides the rubrics:
The sonnet . . . is fourteen lines of lambic pentameter with an organized rhyme scheme. The rhyme scheme of Italian (also referred to as Petrarchan) sonnets is generally two quatrains with an ABBA rhyme scheme (an octave) followed by six lines (a sestet) with a rhyme scheme of CDECDE or CDCDCD or some variation. Sonnets are structurally dynamic: a volta, or shift, in tone, perspective, emotion, or thought appears between the first eight lines and the final six.
To communicate something of beauty and daring within such tight confines tested and proved the poet’s abilities. It forced, as rapper and hip-hop impresario Jay-Z recognized, “writers to find every nook and cranny in the subject and challenged them to invent new language for saying old things.” Black poets took up the form with gusto. And it turns out the sonnet is every bit as black as the ends to which its put.
Phillis Wheatley herself provides the earliest example of an African American writer using the form, though it wasn’t popular among black poets until after the Civil War. Black writers realized the shift basic to the form—the volta—lent itself to internal and external argument, wrestling, even protest. They used the sonnet’s universal shape and style to drive home substance of their own.
One master of the form, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, used it to lament the loss of strong black leadership. Here’s his “Douglass” published with lofty, elevated style in 1903, eight years after his titular subject had died.
Ah, Douglass, we have fall’n on evil days, Such days as thou, not even thou didst know, When thee, the eyes of that harsh long ago Saw, salient, at the cross of devious ways, And all the country heard thee with amaze. Not ended then, the passionate ebb and flow, The awful tide that battled to and fro; We ride amid a tempest of dispraise. Now, when the waves of swift dissension swarm, And Honor, the strong pilot, lieth stark, Oh, for thy voice high-sounding o’er the storm, For thy strong arm to guide the shivering bark, The blast-defying power of thy form, To give us comfort through the lonely dark.
The volta, the shift, is at “now”; whereas we once had a great leader, now there’s dissension within the community while dangers loom without. In another sonnet about Booker T. Washington, Dunbar exchanges the lofty style for hard-charging lines and intentionally excludes the volta—a subtle dig that Washington himself wouldn’t pause to reconsider whether his methods were as effective as he desired.
Traditionally, love occupied the subject of sonnets. Black poets filled the structure with protest. Leslie Pinckney Hill addressed his 1912 sonnet, “Vision of a Lyncher,” to the governor of South Carolina:
Once looked I into hell—‘twas in a trance Throughout a horrid night of soul-wrought pain; Down through the pit I saw the burning plain, Where writhed the tortured swarm, without one glance Upward to earth or God. There in advance Of all the rest was one with lips profane And murderous, bloody hands, marked to be slain By peers that would not bear him countenance. “God,” cried I in my dream, “what soul is he Doomed thus to drain the utmost cup of fate, That even the cursed of Tartarus expel?” And the great Voice replied: “The chastity Of dear, confiding Law he raped; now Hate, His own begotten, drives him forth from hell.”
Dante reserved the worst corner of hell for the traitor. Hill sees in his place the lyncher, possibly for a similar reason. The traitor violates trust for his crimes; the lyncher violates—rapes—the law itself, and everything it represents, for his. As the custodian of law in his state, the governor could not fail to recognize his responsibility and, given his inaction, complicity.
Despite its formal structure and rules, the sonnet proved flexible and capable of wide-ranging expression. It became ubiquitous in the black literary world. Not only could African American writers find room in mainstream journals like Harper’s and the Atlantic Monthly, they could also write for the growing number of black periodicals—forebears of the Freedom School newspapers. “Hundreds of sonnets appeared in these newspapers in the decades after 1890,” says Robbins, concluding “the sonnet is now without question a black poetic form. . . .“
Cultural appropriation at its finest: The western canon and its literary forms offer themselves as the universal property of any who claim and master them.
A Vision for Education
Though not universally supported by black educators, this adopt-and-adapt approach had many champions, perhaps none more inspiring than Anna Julia Cooper. Angel Adams Parham and her cowriter, Howard University lecturer Anika Prather, tell Cooper’s story in The Black Intellectual Tradition.
Born in slavery in 1858, Cooper started school at age nine, then free, at St. Augustine Normal School, a classically oriented Episcopalian institute. Cooper familiarized herself with Greek and Latin: Homer and Vergil, Thucydides and Cicero. She studied philosophy and mathematics.
She married but was soon widowed. Rather than marry again, as might have been expected, she moved on to Oberlin College, where she majored in math. Oberlin was a progressive school that welcomed women students but not so progressive as to allow them the same courses as men. Every bit their equal, Cooper and a handful of other students successfully lobbied to take the same classes as the men. She earned her bachelor’s in 1884.
The vagaries of life and prejudices of society sent her various directions for employment. She traveled to Europe for further education at the Sorbonne. Along the way, she developed a distinct educational vision that appropriated the western canon freely and effectively.
“Teachers from Aristotle to the present have sifted and analyzed the various branches of learning to get at their relative worth as educative factors,” she wrote, continuing:
The results of their experiments and analyses are not hidden in dark places. They are universally accepted by teachers and thinkers as a reasonable and proper basis for the education of mankind. The only way to meet those skeptics who still ask with a half sneer “What is the use of this or that study for Negroes?” is with the query “is it good for men?” Has it been selected for curricula universally and has it stood the test for the discipline it gives in the direction of thought-power, power of appreciation, power of willing the right? These are the things we need. If these studies are means to those ends there can be nothing incongruous or unreasonable in trying them on our pupils in all faith as to the divine possibilities in all human development.
As Prather says of Cooper’s view, “Classical education is the tool for gaining access to the literacy of America—not just the words but the culture as well.” It’s why civil rights activists of the Freedom School knew instinctively the remedy to their problems could be found, at least in part, in the library and typewriter.
Educators such as Cooper provide crucial linkage between the rhetorical influence of Fredrick Douglass, the flowering of black letters in the early twentieth century, and the civil-rights victories in the middle of the century.
Words for Us All
Parham says that African American writers “offer an invitation . . . to enter into the pain of the past and to discern the traces of that pain in the present.” Claude Atcho, an Anglican priest who taught black literature at the collegiate level, represents an ideal guide for that journey.
In Reading Black Books, Atcho combines a literary-critical approach to classic black writers such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, and the more modern exemplar of Toni Morrison. There is, he points, out a renewed interest in black literature today. How else to explain a display of James Baldwin titles at the local Target?
Reading black literature has, he says, the power to stoke our empathy. But it can go beyond that. Atcho argues for reading black books theologically, by which he means attending to what they reveal about central questions of humanity in relationship to the transcendent.
“In Invisible Man,” he says by way of example, “Ralph Ellison presents . . . a question: But what kind of society will make them see me? For just and whole believers, such an inquiry cannot be answered only sociologically. The question begs to be read as a theological ask: How do we see and order human relation so that the God-given dignity of people is seen, not denied?”
Atcho quotes Baldwin’s famous line: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost . . . all of the time.” It’s impossible to read a book like Morrison’s Beloved and not sense that rage. For black readers the book is explanatory, participatory, possibly cathartic. But for white readers?
To be Anglo in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be aware of the reasons for that rage—and to feel it for ourselves, possibly at ourselves. It might be unavoidable. But then what? A theological reading along the lines Atcho pursues has more than explanatory power. It has expiatory power as it calls readers to responsibility and reconciliation. Racism, sin, justice, hope—these all have sociological and theological dimensions. Atcho’s project alerts us to those interpretive possibilities and how they might change our perspectives and our agendas.
Those Mississippi students in 1964 were picking up the mantle from a whole train of literary Elijahs, and their efforts extended that train into the future—into our own day if we’ll just take note and follow their lead.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy my reviews of Farah Jasmine Griffin’s Read Until You Understand and David Hackett Fischer’s African Founders. Thanks for reading! Please share Miller’s Book Review 📚 with a friend.
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