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Reading as a Subversive Act: Libraries as the Guide to Liberation
By Fr. Cyprian Davis, O.S.B.

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Father Cyprian Davis, O.S.B. is a prolific author and authority on the history and spirituality of African American Catholics in the U.S. This presentation was delivered at the CLA Convention in Indianapolis on March 26, 2008.

Reading as a Subversive Act By Father Cyprian Davis, O.S.B.Frederick Douglass was born a slave in Maryland in the year 1818 (+1895). He wrote three accounts of his life. In each one he described how he learned to read and write. As a boy about the age of eleven, he was sent from one slave-holder on an extensive plantation on the eastern shore of Maryland to another slave holder and his wife in Baltimore. In the beginning, the wife of the slave owner treated him very well. As he described it, Sophia Auld even went so far as to begin teaching him how to read. He wrote, "Mrs. Auld…very kindly commenced to teach me the A,B,C." He then went on to say, "After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters." Everything changed, however, when Mr. Auld discovered this. He "At once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read." He went on to say…

If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master - to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world…if you teach that nigger… how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.1

Even though Douglass was yet a boy, from that episode he realized that to read was the key to freedom. The attitude of Mrs. Auld eventually changed towards him. She did her best to stop him from looking at the newspaper. As Douglass wrote, she soon learned that "education and slavery were incompatible with each other.2 By this time he was twelve, and he made friends with the young white boys who played with him on the street. Douglass persuaded them, as he said, to become his teachers. He would carry a book with him when he had to go on errands. He would find a little more time on return journeys when he could read. He learned to write in the same way. He copied the numbers marked on a piece of lumber by the ship carpenters at the shipbuilding yard where he was sent out by his master. He copied the numbers and then the abbreviations on the lumber. Slowly he learned to write. Douglass would later become the best known African American of his time, both in America and in Europe. Orator, lecturer, statesman, uncrowned leader of the black population, founder of the first black newspaper, abolitionist, friend of Lincoln - it began with a young slave boy learning to read.

Hal Hutson was born a slave in Galveston, Tennessee, in 1847. He was ninety years old, and living in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, when he was interviewed by field workers who were part of the WPA researchers in the 1930s. As part of the Federal Writers Projects during the Depression, the federal government began a project of recording the oral histories of former slaves. Mr. Hutson described life on a plantation of some forty slaves. When he was fourteen years old, he took the master's children to school. He sat outside as the white children went to school. He wrote:

I learned to read, write and figger at an early age. Master Brown's boy and I were the same age you see (14 years old) and he would send me to school to protect his kids, and I would have to sit there until school was out. So while sitting there I listened to what the white teacher was telling the kids, and caught on how to read, write and figger - but I never let on, 'cause if I was caught trying to read or figger dey would whip me something terrible. After I caught on how to figger the white kids would ask me to teach them….3

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