African American Studies Literacy
Heidi Morse
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0016


Literacy has meant different things to different people over the past several centuries in America, from constituting the first two components of the early educational slogan “reading,’riting, and ’rithmetic” to encompassing sets of discursive practices particular to certain communities, social contexts, and communication platforms. In African American history, literacy has a special resonance because of the widespread suppression of reading and writing among African American slaves during the antebellum period, when slaveholders feared that literate slaves were more likely to rebel or escape. Indeed, in his famous account of learning to read in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), Douglass characterizes reading as “the pathway from slavery to freedom,” a rhetorically savvy formulation linking literacy to freedom that soon became a cornerstone of the African American literary tradition (see Douglass 1997, cited under Literacy, Slavery, and Freedom). During and after the Civil War, literacy acquisition became a primary goal among many former slaves and the demand for education ushered in a new era of freedmen’s schools and institutions of higher learning (historically black colleges and universities [HBCUs]), the latter of which helped train a cadre of African American teachers. Scholars of history, rhetoric, literary studies, and print culture have spearheaded research on this momentous period in the history of African American literacy and literate practices, and many offer sophisticated analyses of how literacy—even as literacy rates rose rapidly among African Americans—coexisted with, rather than supplanted, oral traditions. The next pivotal turning point in educational history and African American literacy occurred in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education and the rise of the Civil Rights movement and affirmative action in college admissions, when larger numbers of teachers and literacy researchers began to address how race and socioeconomic status affected educational outcomes, including reading and writing skills. Since the 1990s, scholars invoking critical race theory have approached that question from a different angle, preferring to examine how African American discursive practices—from African American English (AAE) to community-based cultural literacies such as hip-hop discourse or call-and-response—can be beneficially incorporated into literacy instruction. This article includes sections dedicated to different kinds of literacy practices, including reading, writing, and cultural literacies, in order to facilitate sustained examination of sites and contexts for African American literate practices outside of educational settings. To maintain a reasonable scope, the focus throughout is on literacy in Standard English and/or African American English.

General Overviews

Introductory sources on the topic of literacy in African American studies are best organized by disciplinary approach. Because no one source represents a complete overview of the topic, researchers may wish to consult multiple sources to gain a sense of the scope and trajectories of the fields in question. Royster 2000 and Fisher 2009 offer overviews of African American literacy in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively, that are fairly comprehensive in approach, though Royster foregrounds African American women. Their methodologies favor rhetorical, historical, and ethnographic disciplinary affiliations, and each argues for an expansive definition of literacy that links African American literate practices—including reading, writing, speaking, and performing—to sociopolitical activism. Street 1984 introduces the foundational concept of multiple “literacies” that has been applied by numerous researchers in sociolinguistics, education, and literacy studies. Harris, et al. 2001 and Winn and Behizadeh 2011 continue this mode of theorizing “literacies” in the context of African American communities, especially in educational contexts. Both texts contain useful overviews of scholarly debates over definitions of literacy and literacies. Finally, Perry 2003 and Salvino 1989 offer complementary literary and historical perspectives on what literacy has meant to African Americans from the early republic to today, using sources that include autobiographical accounts of literacy acquisition and writing by contemporaneous educational theorists.

  • Fisher, Maisha T. Black Literate Lives: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2009.

    A study of alternative educational spaces—especially venues for cultural performance—and literacy acquisition practices in 20th-century African American communities. Utilizing historical and ethnographic research methods, Fisher identifies a close relationship between literacy and political activism.

  • Harris, Joyce L., Alan G. Kamhi, and Karen E. Pollock, eds. Literacy in African American Communities. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001.

    Collection of essays representing scholarly perspectives on literacy in social sciences, education, and communication studies. First essay by Constance Dean Qualls, “Public and Personal Meanings of Literacy,” is an especially useful overview suitable for undergraduates.

  • Perry, Theresa. “Freedom for Literacy and Literacy for Freedom: The African-American Philosophy of Education.” In Young, Gifted, and Black: Promoting High Achievement among African-American Students. By Theresa Perry, Claude Steele, and Asa G. Hilliard III, 11–51. Boston: Beacon, 2003.

    Starting from the connection many scholars of African American studies have drawn between literacy and freedom, this essay analyzes a sampling of autobiographical accounts of the struggle for literacy acquisition and what it signifies by prominent African American activists and writers from Frederick Douglass to Malcolm X and Maya Angelou.

  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change among African American Women. Pittsburgh Series in Composition, Literacy, and Culture. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.

    An influential monograph that links rhetorical studies, literacy studies, and feminist analysis with the history of African American women writers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Royster characterizes African American women’s literacy as sociopolitical action.

  • Salvino, Dana Nelson. “The Word in Black and White: Ideologies of Race and Literacy in Antebellum America.” In Reading in America: Literature and Social History. Edited by Cathy N. Davidson, 140–156. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

    A concise introduction to what literacy signified in antebellum America and how ideologies of literacy—especially the idea that literacy equals freedom—come into being. Salvino distinguishes literacy in and of itself from the belief in the efficacy of literacy as a liberating force.

  • Street, Brain V. Literacy in Theory and Practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

    A widely cited source on different theorizations of literacy and “literacies,” addressed primarily to social anthropologists and sociolinguists, but with important implications for educators. Street champions the concept of multiple “literacies,” arguing that reading and writing function in tandem with social, cultural, and political contexts.

  • Winn, Maisha T., and Nadia Behizadeh. “The Right to Be Literate: Literacy, Education, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline.” Review of Research in Education 35 (2011): 147–173.

    DOI: 10.3102/0091732X10387395

    An essay on literacy, race, and at-risk students that includes a cogent discussion of defining literacy and “literacies” for research purposes and of the potentially detrimental educational and social consequences of defining literacy according to a color-blind ideology.

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