In an era where "knowledge is power," the emphasis on literacy in African American texts is undeniable. Beginning with the first African American literary works, the slave narratives, through the canon's more recent successes such as Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon and Sapphire's Push, the topic of literacy is almost inextricably connected to freedom and power. A closer investigation, however, leads the reader to another, less direct, message indicating that perhaps this belief in literacy as a pathway to the "American Dream" of freedom and social and financial success is contradictory or, at least, insufficient in social and cultural terms. In this way, African American literature reconstructs the "American Dream" into an even more complex "dream deferred."
In his introduction to The Classic Slave Narratives, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. states: "In literacy lay true freedom for the black slave," (ix). Such is the case for Frederick Douglass whose initial tutelage by his mistress, Mrs. Auld, and the subsequent denial of such tutelage by Mr. Auld enlightens Douglass to "an entirely new train of thought," which allows him to understand "the pathway from slavery to freedom," (275). Understanding that maintaining the illiteracy of the slave population was "the white man's power to enslave the black man" (275), Douglass realizes that learning to read is a potential pathway for freedom from the chains of slavery. It is here, however, that the distinction between freedom from slavery and the freedom inherent in the ideology of the "American Dream" begin to breakdown what Harvey Graff terms "the literacy myth."...
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...n the successful negotiation of not just illiteracy, but of a history of social and cultural denial. Such is the nature of the dream deferred.
Brent, Linda. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The Classic Slave Narratives. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Penguin Group, 1987.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The Classic Slave Narratives. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Penguin Group, 1987.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Introduction. The Classic Slave Narratives. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Penguin Group, 1987. ix-xviii.
Graff, Harvey J. The Literacy Myth: Literacy and Social Structure in the Nineteenth-Century City. New York: Academic Press, 1979.
Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: The Penguin Group, 1977.
Sapphire. Push. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1996.
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