‘Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.’ Frederick Douglass
ONE OF THE FIRST skills that Friday learns under the tutelage of his ‘master’ Robinson Crusoe is the ability to read with the ultimate purpose of instructing him in the precepts of the Christian religion. Throughout the history of Christian missions, the role of literacy among enslaved people has remained a fraught issue. Some have regarded it as means of spreading religious belief; others have feared that it might undermine the authority of the dominant culture; some have embraced both. This was certainly so in the context of the antebellum South, where many enslaved readers first acquired literacy, like Friday, for the purposes of religious instruction.
Frederick Douglass recalled in his memoirs how he was taught to read the Bible from his mistress (illustrated here) and attributed his first awareness of the injustice of slavery to her husband’s disapproval. According to the latter, ‘it would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. ‘ From then on, Douglass claimed, he understood how literacy was ‘the pathway from slavery to freedom.’
Many slaveholders found the prospect of widespread literacy similarly threatening. Jennifer Monaghan observes how, after the American Revolution, ‘the few trickles of suspicion that reading, as well as writing, was actually a dangerous activity would soon swell into a tidal wave of mistrust. From roughly 1820 on, the conviction on the part of slaveholders that reading was a subversive activity would become the dominant one.’ The pioneering historian of slavery and literacy, Janet Cornelius, set out four decades ago to uncover how enslaved men and women learned to read and write against the odds, sometimes by lamplight risking their lives in pursuit of learning. In Georgia, Doc Daniel Dowdy reported that ‘the first time you was caught trying to read or write, you was whipped with a cow-hide, the next time with a cat-o-nine-tails and the third time they cut the first jint off your forefinger.’ Another liberated reader in Georgia recalled: ‘If they caught you trying to write they would cut your finger off and if they caught you again they would cut your head off.’ Among those punished for educating enslaved people, Cornelius noted, was Albert Booker who was whipped to death.
Between 1740 and 1834 a number of Southern states enacted anti-literacy laws, some making the teaching of reading and writing to black learners punishable by fines and flogging. The question continued to be political contentious long after Abolition. The 1902 Virginia Constitutional Convention required the exclusion of voters who had not passed a literacy test. When the measure was questioned, Senator Carter Glass is reported to have replied: ‘Discrimination! Why that is exactly what we propose. To remove every negro voter who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate.’ Immediately thereafter the number of African-American voters in Virginia dropped from 147,000 to 21,000. To date, the United States is the only country reputed to have framed anti-literacy laws.
Well they might have worried. In giving the gift of reading to Friday, Robinson Crusoe did not foresee its non-religious liberating potential. Once Friday’s religious instruction begins, the technology of reading provides him with a means of challenging the pious mythmaking of Crusoe. On reflection, confesses Crusoe, Friday was the better Christian but, as Defoe goes on to demonstrate, he is also the better logician. While Crusoe is willing to embrace a narrative handed down to him by theological tradition, Friday responds to his prescriptive reading with devastating logic:
I had been telling him how the Devil was God’s Enemy in the Hearts of Men, and used all his Malice and Skill to defeat the good Designs of Providence, and to ruine the Kingdom of Christ in the World, and the like. Well, says Friday, but you say God is so strong, so great; is he not much strong, much might as the Devil? Yes, yes, says I, Friday, God is stronger than the Devil, God is above the Devil, and therefore we pray to God to tread him down under our Feet, and enable us to resist his temptations and quench his fiery Darts. But, says he again, if God much strong, much might as the Devil, why God no kill the Devil, so make him no more do wicked? . . . . I was strangely surpriz’d at his Question, and after all, tho’ I was now an old Man, yet I was but a young Doctor, and ill enough quallified for a Casuist, or a Solver of Difficulties; And at first I could not tell what to say, so I pretended not to hear him . . . .
Thus readers invested in these Strange and Surprizing Adventures were invited to share in the ‘strangely surpriz’d’ response of their hero. After further conversation, Crusoe finds himself ‘run down again by him to the last Degree’, leading him to ‘divert the present Discourse between me and my Man’ as he distracts Friday from his persistent questions by sending him away. If Crusoe is the exemplar of an ideal Christian reader, submitting his critical capacities to the authoritative word, ‘having more sincerity than knowledge’, Friday turns out to be the better casuist. While Friday may allow himself to be ‘mastered’ by Crusoe in other respects, in matters of theology he speaks for the voice of insubordination, the philosophical and rationalist enquirer rather than submissive reader.
While assumptions are commonly made about the power of print to create a stable public sphere, examples from history suggest the power of readers to challenge the intentions of the printed word. When others have seen reading as a force for the inculcation of obedience, historic evidence would suggest otherwise.