Amanda Gorman
Attribution: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from Washington D.C, United States, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

To me, one of the most crippling experiences of African American slavery was the fact that slaves were denied the privilege of learning to read and write.

Of course, if you were a slave, being worked almost to death, beaten for no good reason, and deprived of what we would consider basic necessities, learning to read and write would be the furthest thing on your mind.

But such was the law at that time. If you were a slave in the United States, literacy was beyond your reach. In Slavery and The Making of America: The Slave Experience, the article description states, “Fearing that black literacy would prove a threat to the slave system — which relied on slaves’ dependence on masters — whites in many colonies instituted laws forbidding slaves to learn to read or write and making it a crime for others to teach them.”

This doesn’t mean that slaves were never taught to read. Some slave owners allowed or taught their slaves to learn to read for the purpose of religious instruction. However, learning to write was considered off limits. It would “threaten the social order,” according to another article.


Slavery and The Making of America: The Slave Experience cites an excerpt from the South Carolina Act of 1740, which states in part, “Whereas, the having slaves taught to write, or suffering them to be employed in writing, may be attended with great inconveniences; Be it enacted, that all and every person and persons whatsoever, who shall hereafter teach or cause any slave or slaves to be taught to write, or shall use or employ any slave as a scribe, in any manner of writing whatsoever, hereafter taught to write, every such person or persons shall, for every such offense, forfeit the sum of one hundred pounds, current money. “

If only the framers of those laws could have seen into the future, they would have scrapped them before the ink dried on the page. Because today, descendants of slaves are among the most prolific and sought-after writers in libraries and bookstores across America.

One slave who did receive reading and writing instruction from her masters was Phillis Wheatley, who, it was revealed, published her first poem “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin,” at the age of 13. By the time she was 18, she had gathered a collection of 28 poems, for which she, with the help of her mistress Mrs. Wheatley, sought subscriptions in Boston newspapers.

However, this effort proved futile, and on May 8, 1771, Wheatley and Nathaniel, the Wheatley’s son, sailed for London, where Phillis was welcomed by several dignitaries, including Benjamin Franklin. Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), became the first volume of poetry by an African American published in modern times.

Today, other names have followed the trail blazed by Phillis Wheatley: Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Gwendolyn Brooks, and many others.

This post will not be complete without mentioning the latest poet to join the ranks of illustrious African American poets. Many of us had not heard of Amanda Gorman until she recited her captivating poem, The Hill We Climb at Joe Biden’s inauguration, making her the youngest inaugural poet in US history. She will no doubt go on to cross many rivers and climb many hills, forever keeping her name etched in the annals of African American literature.

Reading poetry can be inspiring, stimulating, and soothing at the same time. It can speak to your heart in ways that prose may not always do. For Black History month, will you take the time to delve into some of these treasures that can enrich your life? If you look at the related posts below, you would find a couple that, I hope, will whet your appetite for more. When you do, please drop me a line and tell me what you read and what you think about them.

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