An actress playing Aunt Chloe, a character created by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.
Credit: Crafting Freedom.
But some of us would try to steal
A little from the book,
And put the words together,
And learn by hook or crook.
From the poem, “Learning to Read” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
In this lesson students learn about African American literacy before and immediately after Emancipation through the poem “Learning to Read” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911). Harper was a freeborn African American poet, author, and public speaker who used her high degree of literacy to advance herself and also to uplift others of her race through the power of her words. This lesson engages students in three types of learning: 1) verbal information: identifying historical facts about the pursuit of literacy by African Americans during and after slavery; identifying facts about Harper’s life and her contributions; and identifying historical facts referenced in “Learning to Read”; 2) intellectual skills: practicing the skill of “close reading”; and 3) attitudes: instilling positive attitudes in students about being literate in the 21st century.
In “Learning to Read,” Harper deploys the character of Aunt Chloe, an elderly former slave, to convey the value of literacy to blacks during and after slavery. During the era of slavery, the enslaved viewed literacy as a key to freedom and coveted it. After Emancipation, literacy was viewed as a key to self-empowerment and economic independence. Aunt Chloe became literate in her 60s, and through her voice, Harper conveys that it’s never too late to learn to read and write.
The lesson can also prompt students to reflect on the value of traditional literacy and 21st-century literacies in their own lives, such as financial literacy and technology literacy. (For example, financial literacy can open the door to greater economic independence.)
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a 19th-century literary phenomenon who expressed her social and political views through poetry, novels, short stories, and speeches. Born to free black parents, Harper launched her career at age 20 with Forest Leaves, her first book of poetry. In 1859, she wrote “The Two Offers,” the first short story ever published by an African American woman. In 1892, she published Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted, her most famous novel. Harper was an advocate for African American literacy and in “Learning to Read” she describes the value of literacy to African Americans and how they acquired it before and after slavery. (See the Biography handout under Preparation and Resources.)
Enslaved people had good reason to desire to be able to read and write. A literate slave could forge passes or free papers and use these in their escape. As Aunt Chloe observes in “Learning to Read,” some slaves learned to read and write from white children, who were less aware of laws against enslaved literacy. Others took newspapers and studied the letters and words. Frederick Douglass in his 1845 Narrative spoke for thousands in bondage when he wrote “nothing seemed to make her [his mistress] more angry than to see me with a newspaper.” Douglass added, “She seemed to think that here lay the danger.”
African American political activist David Walker in his Appeal wrote, “for coloured people to acquire learning in this country, makes tyrants quake and tremble on their sandy foundation” with knowledge that “their infernal deeds of cruelty will be made known to the world.” Literate African Americans did indeed make known to the world the evils of slavery in their correspondence, slave narratives (or memoirs of slavery), and in their literature. In 1830, North Carolina passed a law that forbade teaching slaves to read and write, stating that literacy has a “tendency to excite dissatisfaction in their minds and to produce insurrection and rebellion to the manifest injury of the citizens of this state.”
Some slaves held underground schools in secret hiding places. Former slave, Charity Bowery of North Carolina, in an interview decades after Emancipation, stated, “I have seen the Negroes up in the country going away under large oaks, and in secret places, sitting in the woods with spelling books.” In sum, African Americans were creative in finding ways to learn to read and write because they knew that literacy led to knowledge that could lead to freedom.
As a prompt for this activity, ask students: What is literacy? Encourage them to list examples of literacy in the 21st century beyond reading and writing (such as technology literacy, cross-cultural literacy, financial literacy, civic literacy etc.). Emphasize that most forms of literacy in the 21st century have reading and writing as a prerequisite. Record the responses on blackboard/flipchart. Ask students: How are you literate? Do you value your literacy? Why?
Ask students to write a response to the following:
How does Francis Ellen Watkins Harper’s life and achievements, as represented in the brief biography, differ from those of Aunt Chloe in the video? What do they have in common? What things do they prize most highly?
(Refer to the Background section of this lesson to provide more information about how and why enslaved people taught themselves to read and why slave masters were generally opposed to enslaved literacy.)
Distribute the poem “Learning to Read.” The verses are numbered to aid in the close reading of the text. Have student read the poem once to themselves, and then for a second time, the teacher or a student can read it aloud in class. Tell students to circle any words that they may not know, such as “Yankee,” “Teachers,” “Rebs.”
Ask students what the poem is about. As an aid to interpretation, ask them what Aunt Chloe and the other characters in the poem want.
Next, pass out copies of the annotation worksheet of “Learning to Read.” Tell students they are going to “chunk the text” into two segments and label them either “A” (After Slavery) or “B” (During Slavery). Explain that “chunking the text” into meaningful units is an aid to close reading and that they are only going to look at the segments marked “A” for now. [Note to teacher: A) verses 1–2/13–20 refer to the period immediately after Slavery, also known as the era of Reconstruction; and B) verses 3–12 refer to the period during Slavery.]
After students have completed these steps, ask them about their circled words:
Under slavery, it was a crime to teach an enslaved person to read and they were punished if they gave evidence of literacy. What explains the great efforts the newly freed persons made to learn to read? Base your answer on the evidence in the poem as well as facts you have learned about Francis Watkins Harper.
To help inculcate positive attitudes about literacy in your students, you may also wish to use yourself as a role model by explaining how you are literate and by describing how your literacy/literacies have benefited your life.
Return to the opening prompt of the lesson. What is literacy? Encourage students to list examples of literacy in the 21st century beyond reading and writing (such as technology literacy, cross-cultural literacy, financial literacy, civic literacy etc.) and why they are important. Emphasize that most forms of literacy in the 21st century have reading and writing as a prerequisite. Record the responses on blackboard/flipchart. Ask students: How are you literate? Do you value your literacy? Why? What were the benefits of being able to read and write for black people in the 19th century?
The speaker in “Learning to Read” is the character, Aunt Chloe. Ask students to write a poem or a diary entry about the events Aunt Chloe describes in the poem, but from another point of view such as a Southerner (Reb) or a Yankee teacher who went to the South to educate former slaves. Ask students to think about how they would perceive Aunt Chloe and write from their perspective or viewpoint.
1-2 class periods