Word by Word

Word by Word

Emancipation and the Act of Writing

eBook - 2013
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Harvard University Press

One of the cruelest abuses of slavery in America was that slaves were forbidden to read and write. Consigned to illiteracy, they left no records of their thoughts and feelings apart from the few exceptional narratives of Frederick Douglass and others who escaped to the North—or so we have long believed. But as Christopher Hager reveals, a few enslaved African Americans managed to become literate in spite of all prohibitions, and during the halting years of emancipation thousands more seized the chance to learn. The letters and diaries of these novice writers, unpolished and hesitant yet rich with voice, show ordinary black men and women across the South using pen and paper to make sense of their experiences.

Through an unprecedented gathering of these forgotten writings—from letters by individuals sold away from their families, to petitions from freedmen in the army to their new leaders, to a New Orleans man’s transcription of the Constitution—Word by Word rewrites the history of emancipation. The idiosyncrasies of these untutored authors, Hager argues, reveal the enormous difficulty of straddling the border between slave and free.

These unusual texts, composed by people with a unique perspective on the written word, force us to rethink the relationship between literacy and freedom. For African Americans at the end of slavery, learning to write could be liberating and empowering, but putting their hard-won skill to use often proved arduous and daunting—a portent of the tenuousness of the freedom to come.


Consigned to illiteracy, American slaves left little record of their thoughts and feelings—or so we have believed. But a few learned to use pen and paper to make sense of their experiences, despite prohibitions. These authors’ perspectives rewrite the history of emancipation and force us to rethink the relationship between literacy and freedom.

Book News
This study invites inquiry into the profound mysteries of how literacy functions for individuals and for society--the transformative power of the inner experience, the significance of the context in which reading and writing occur. Hager (English and American studies, Trinity College) has brought together writings by slaves and former slaves after Emancipation--writings remarkable in that they exist at all, given that slaves were forbidden to read and write, and remarkable, also, for what they express and what they reveal about literacy itself. Annotation ©2013 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

Publisher: Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2013
ISBN: 9780674067486
0674067487
0674059867
9780674059863
Characteristics: 1 online resource (311 pages)

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