- Literacy and Liberation
African-American literature found its beginnings during the American
slave era, which itself began with the selling of the first African slaves
in colonial Jamestown in 1619. The first literary works to emerge out
of this dark period were in the form of eighteenth-century slave narratives,
poems, and folk materials. The rich black Southern voices that called
out through these rare writings were truly distinctive for their profound
depth, resonance, sorrow, and anger about the inhumane destruction that
slavery had imposed on their lives. Many of these early works sought to
record the black man's struggles to escape to freedom and to overthrow
slavery. Others reveal beautiful melodic undertones and writing styles
that reflected the feelings, perspectives, and spirituality of their African
Two important leaders of the slave era who used writing as a tool for
social protest and artistic expression were Frances E. W. Harper and Frederick
Douglass. Harper, a free slave from the North, spoke and wrote powerfully
for the abolition of slavery and the civil rights of blacks and women.
A self-educated former slave, Frederick Douglass devoted his life to enlightening,
educating, and raising the consciousness of Northern whites about the
unspeakable horrors of slavery. The strength of Douglass's character and
writings would come to play an important role in widening the North–South
gap that eventually ended slavery in America.
In this selection, Harper and Douglass reveal what an important role
literacy played in freeing blacksboth physically and spirituallyfrom
the oppressiveness of slavery.
About the Authors
Frederick Douglass (1817-1895), a famous African-American ex-slave
and abolitionist, author, orator, and journalist, was born the son of
a female Negro slave and of a white father that he would never meet.
Reared until the age of eight by his enslaved grandmother, Douglass was
sent to Baltimore in 1825 to live with the Auld family, who were relatives
of his master. During his stay there, Mrs. Auld taught him how to read
and write. Upon the death of his master in 1833, Douglass was sold off
a number of other masters before unsuccessfully attempting to escape to
freedom in 1836. Sent back to his master, Douglass worked as a ship caulker
until 1838, when he escaped to New York City disguised as a sailor.
As a free man, Douglass took a free colored woman as his wife and moved
to Massachusetts, where he worked as a laborer for a living. He became
involved in the anti-slavery movement in 1841, after he displayed his
great oratorical power during a spontaneous speech at the Anti-Slavery
Society of Massachusetts. For four years, he was one of the Society's
lecturers, speaking at various places, including Harvard University. After
publishing his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick
Douglass (1845), Douglass moved to England for two years out of
fear of recapture. Upon his return to the States in 1847, he purchased
his own freedom and began the anti-slavery paper North Star in
With the onset of the Civil War, Douglass was asked by the government
to help recruit men for a new Union Army Negro regiment, which ultimately
came to include two of Douglass's own sons. Over the next twenty years,
from 1871 to 1891, Douglass was appointed to a number of significant governmental
posts, making him the first African-American leader of national standing
in the United States. The most significant of his posts, his last, was
as the American Consul General to Haiti.
Frederick Douglass was best known for his powerful oratory, which brought
to life the tremendous oppression he and millions of others endured under
slavery. Douglass's autobiographical writings include My Bondage
and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass
Frances E. W. Harper (1825-1911), African-American poet, novelist,
social reformer, and lecturer, was born a free individual in the slave
state of Maryland and ultimately came to play a very active and powerful
role in the abolitionist movement against slavery.
Though orphaned early in life, Harper attended a highly academic Negro
school in Baltimore, where she excelled in studies of languages, elocution,
and the Bible. Her outstanding education enabled her to teach in Negro
schools in Ohio and Pennsylvania from 1850 to 1853 and give her the courage
to answer her strong literary calling by writing such early works as Forest
Leaves (1845) and Eventide (1854). It wasn't long,
however, before the ever-turbulent issue of slavery compelled the strong-willed
Harper to get involved in the abolitionist movement, first as a worker
on the Underground Railroad, then as one of the first woman lecturers
for the Maine Anti-Slavery Society.
While spreading the word of abolitionism and social reform throughout
the North, Harper became known as a fiery and dramatic orator who captivated
her audiences with highly melodic and verse-like speeches. The strong
imagery and morality of her affecting presentationswhich often included
readings from her most popular book, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects
(1854)garnered national attention for Harper and the cause of freedom.
And while lecturing for anti-slavery groups, Harper regularly contributed
to abolitionist journals such as The Liberator and Frederick
Douglass's Monthly. She also participated in streetcar protests in
Philadelphia in 1858 and in John Brown's stand at Harper's Ferry in 1859.
By 1860, Harper had married a farmer, had given birth to a child, and
had become a homemaker. As the Civil War commenced, she continued to give
lectures against the South and was one of the first blacks to go there
after the war to assist in the freedom of former slaves. After the untimely
death of her husband, Harper began a crusade of lectures throughout the
South, trying to educate blacks and whites about the goals of the post-slavery
Reconstruction era. The essays that Harper sent to Northern newspapers
during her Southern pilgrimage proved to be very influential, as were
her poetic works, Moses: A Story of the Nile (1869), Sketches
of Southern Life (1870), and Poems (1871).
The same high morality and tireless campaigning that Harper used during
the abolitionist and Reconstruction eras, she would later apply to the
women's temperance cause against alcohol. Her powerful perspective and
efforts in this area would make Harper one of the first African-American
women to gain a national office in the Women's Christian Temperance Movement.
Harper's literary works used lyrical innovation and moral conviction
to draw attention to the social struggles that burdened America during
the slave era. Though she used literature as a way to capture beauty and
to ease her mind, she also viewed it as a tool that could change or improve
the lives and views of her audience. Among her other important works are
Iola Leroy: or, Shadows Uplifted (1892), Atlanta Offering:
Poems (1895), and Idylls of the Bible (1901).
- 1. commenced begun.
- 2. an ellmore than a yard
- 3. stratagems schemes.
- 4. depravitywickedness.
- 5. chattelmovable piece of personal property.
- 6. divestrid.
- 7. preceptsrules.
- 8. apprehensionuneasiness.
- 9. urchinsorphans; mischievous children.
- 10. prudencegood judgment.
- 11. emancipationrelease; freedom from slavery.
- 12. unabatedunending, undying.
- 13. denunciationcondemnation, criticism.
- 14. vindicationjustification.
- 15. abhorhate.
- 16. animateliving.
- 17. inanimatelifeless.
- 18. scowflat-bottomed boat.
- 19. leavesbook pages.
- 20. Testamentthe Christian Bible.
Use the STUDY GUIDE below as a way to work through the selection
and improve your comprehension of the essay.
Answer the Questions to Consider questions in the book as a way
to deepen your interpretation of the selection.
1.What do the lines "Oh! Chloe, you're too late; But as I was rising
sixty, I had no time to wait" mean?
2. When and how did Frederick Douglass come to understand that learning
to read and write was important?
3. On page 17, Douglass writes of trying to discover what "the fruit
of abolition" meant. How would you define the phrase?
4. Why was literacy so important to both Frances E. W. Harper and Frederick
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)
My Bondage and My Freedom (1855)
Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881)
Frances E. W. Harper
Forest Leaves (1845)
Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854)
Moses: A Story of the Nile (1869)
Sketches of Southern Life (1870)
Trial and Triumph (1888)
Iola Leroy: or, Shadows Uplifted (1892)
Atlanta Offering: Poems (1895)
Idylls of the Bible (1901)
James Baldwin. Notes of a Native Son (1955). A powerful African-American
prose writer explains to 1950s white America what it means to be an urban
Claude Brown. Manchild in the Promised Land (1965). Autobiography
of a young man who escaped the Harlem ghetto, gang wars, and prison to
enter law school.
Frederick Douglass. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
(1845). The life story of the self-educated ex-slave who became a famous
lecturer of the abolitionist movement.
W.E.B. DuBois. The Souls of Black Folk (1903). An African-American
historian, sociologist, educator, and abolitionist explores the souls
of blacks in nineteenth-century America.
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Why We Can't Wait (1964). One of
five books in which the great Civil Rights
leader explains his approach to achieving racial justice in America.
Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X
(1965). The life story of an influential Black Muslim leader of the mid-
Alice Moody. Coming of Age in Mississippi (1969). A candid memoir
of a young Mississippi woman's experience in the Civil
Toni Morrison. Jazz (1992). A lyrical, improvisational story of
black life in 1920s New York City by the first African-American woman
to win a Nobel Prize.
Alice Walker. The Color Purple (1982). A best-selling, Pulitzer
prize-winning novel by a prolific fiction writer and women's advocate,
the daughter of Georgia sharecroppers.
Richard Wright. Native Son (1940). A searing novel of the World
War II era, by an African-American author who influenced many later writers.