ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Up From Slavery: A Documentary History of Negro Education
Compiled By Rudolph Lewis
David Walker Discusses the Education of the Negro, 1830
There is a great work for you to do, as trifling as some of you may think of it. You have to prove to the Americans and the world, that we are MEN, and not brutes, as we have been represented, and by millions treated. Remember, to let the aim of your labours among your brethren, and particularly the youths, be the dissemination of education and religion.
It is lamentable, that many of our children go to school, from four until they are eight or ten, and sometimes fifteen years of age, and leave school knowing but a little more about the grammar of their language than a horse does about handling a musketand not a few of them are really so ignorant, that they are unable to answer a person correctly, general questions in geography, and to hear them read, would only be to disgust a man who has a taste for reading; which, to do well as trifling as it may appear to some, (to the ignorant in particular) is a great part of learning.
Some few of them, may make out to scribble tolerably well, over a half sheet of paper, which I believe has hitherto been a powerful obstacle in our way, to keep us from acquiring knowledge. An ignorant father, who knows no more than what nature has taught him, together with what little he acquires by the senses of hearing and seeing, finding his son able to write a neat hand, sets it down for granted that he has as good learning as any body; the young, ignorant gump, hearing his father or mother, who perhaps may be ten times more ignorant, in point of literature, than himself, extolling his learning, struts about, in the full assurance, that his attainments in literature are sufficient to take him through the world, when, in fact, he has scarcely any learning at all!!!!
I promiscuously fell into conversation once, with an elderly coloured man on the topics of education, and of the great prevalency of ignorance among us: Said he, “I know that our people are very ignorant but my son has a good education: I spent a great deal of money on his education: he can write as well as any white man, and I assure you that no one can fool him,” etc. Said I, what else can your son do, besides writing a good hand? Can he post a set of books in a mercantile manner? Can he write a neat piece of composition in prose or in verse?
To these interrogations he answered in the negative. Said I, Did your son learn, while he was at school, the width and depth of English Grammar? to which he also replied in the negative, telling me his son did not learn those things. Your son, said I, then, has hardly any learning at allhe is almost as ignorant, and more so, than many of those who never went to school one day in all their lives. My friend got a little put out, and so walking off, said that his son could write as well as any white man.
Most of the coloured people, when they speak of the education of one among us who can write a neat hand, and who perhaps knows nothing but to scribble and puff pretty fair on a small scrap of paper, immaterial whether his words are grammatical, or spelt correctly, or not; if it only looks beautiful, they say he has as good an education as any white manhe can write as well as any white man, etc. The poor, ignorant creature, hearing this, he is ashamed, forever after, to let any person see him humbling himself to another for knowledge but going about trying to deceive those who are more ignorant than himself, he at last falls an ignorant victim to death in wretchedness.
I pray that the Lord may undeceive my ignorant brethren, and permit them to throw away pretensions, and seek after the substance of learning. I would crawl on my hands and knees through mud and mire, to the feet of a learned man, where I would sit and humbly supplicate him to instill into me, that which neither devils nor tyrants could remove, only with my lifefor the Africans to acquire learning in this country, makes tyrants quake and tremble on their sandy foundation.
Why, what is the matter? Why, they know that their infernal deeds of cruelty will be made known to the world. Do you suppose one man of good sense and learning would submit himself, his father, mother, wife and children, to be slaves to a wretched man like himself, who, instead of compensating him for his labours, chains, handcuffs and beats him and family almost to death, leaving life enough in them, however, to work for, sad call him master? No! no! he would cut his devilish throat from ear to ear, and well do slave-holders know it. The bare name of educating the coloured people, scares our cruel oppressors almost to death. But if they do not have enough to be frightened for yet, it will be because they can always keep us ignorant, and because God approbates their cruelties, with which they have been for centuries murdering us. The whites shall have enough of the blacks, yet, as true as God sits on his throne in heaven.
Some of our brethren are so very full of learning, that you cannot mention any thing to them which they do not know better than yourself!!-nothing is strange to them!!- they knew every thing years ago!-if any thing should be mentioned in company where they are, immaterial how important it is respecting us or the world, if they had not divulged it; they make light of it, and affect to have known it long before it was mentioned and try to make all in the room, or wherever you may be, believe that your conversation is nothing!!-not worth hearing!
All this is the result of ignorance and ill-breeding; for a man of good-breeding, sense and penetration, if he had heard a subject told twenty times over, and should happen to be in company where one should commence telling it again, he would wait with patience on its narrator, and see if he would tell it as it was told in his presence before-paying the most strict attention to what is said, to see if any more light will be thrown on the subject: for all men are not gifted alike in telling, or even hearing the most simple narration. These ignorant, vicious, and wretched men, contribute almost as much injury to our body as tyrants themselves, by doing so much for the promotion of ignorance amongst us; for they, making such pretensions to knowledge, such of our youth as are seeking after knowledge, and can get access to them, take them as criterions to go by, who will lead them into a channel, where, unless the Lord blesses them with the privilege of seeing their folly, they will be irretrievably lost forever, while in time!!!
I must close this article by relating the very heartrending fact, that I have examined school-boys and young men of colour in different parts of the country, in the most simple parts of Murray’s English Grammar, and not more than one in thirty was able to give a correct answer to my interrogations. If any one contradicts me, let him step out of his door into the streets of Boston, New-York, Philadelphia, or Baltimore, (no use to mention any other, for the Christians are too charitable further south or west! )-I say, let him who disputes me, step out of his door into the streets of either of those four cities, and promiscuously collect one hundred school-boys, or young men of colour who have been to school, and who are considered by the coloured people to have received an excellent education, because, perhaps, some of them can write a good hand, but who, notwithstanding their neat writing, may be almost as ignorant, in comparison, as horses.
And, I say it, he will hardly find (in this enlightened day, and in the midst of this charitable people) five in one hundred, who are able to correct the false grammar of their language.The cause of this almost universal ignorance among us, I appeal to our school-masters to declare. Here is a fact, which I this very minute take from the mouth of a young coloured man, who has been to school in this state (Massachusetts) nearly nine years, and who knows grammar this day, nearly as well as he did the day he first entered the school-house, under a white master. This young man says: “My master would never allow me to study grammar. I asked him, why? “The school committee,” said he, “forbid the coloured children learning grammarthey would not allow any but the white children to study grammar.”
It is a notorious fact, that the major part of the white Americans, have, ever since we have been among them, tried to keep us ignorant, and make us believe that God made us and our children to be slaves to them and theirs. 0h! my God, have mercy on Christian Americans!!!
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Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles, Together with a Preamble, to the Colored Citizens of the World, But in Particular, and Very Expressly to Those of the United States of America (ad. ed.: Boston: Published by David Walker, 1830), pp.34-35. A copy of this pamphlet is in the Library of Harvard University; microcopy is in the Southern Historical Collection, the Library of the University of North Carolina. See Clement Eaton, Freedom of Thought in the Old South, 121-26, and his “A Dangerous Pamphlet in the Old South,” Journal of Southern History, II (August, 1936), 1-12.
Walker’s was one of the earliest of those incendiary writings that caused fear of insurrection of the slaves. Walker was a free Negro from North Carolina who went to Boston where for a time he seemed to be a dealer in old clothes. His pamphlet was said to have been widely circulated and read. Eaton says that the “significance of the Walker pamphlet has been overshadowed by the attention which has been given to the more spectacular Nat Turner insurrection the following year.”
Chapter VI. “The Instruction of Negroes.” In Edgar W. Knight.. A Documentary History of Education in the South before 1860. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, 1953
Chapter 10 “Up From Slavery: Educational and other Rights of Negroes.” In Edgar W. Knight and Clifton L. Hall. Readings in American Educational History. New York Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1951.
Many states had laws prohibiting the education of blacks; here black youngsters are turned away at the school door
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By Gil Scott Heron
Shortly after we republished The Vulture and The Nigger Factory, Gil started to tell me about The Last Holiday, an account he was writing of a multi-city tour that he ended up doing with Stevie Wonder in late 1980 and early 1981. Originally Bob Marley was meant to be playing the tour that Stevie Wonder had conceived as a way of trying to force legislation to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday. At the time, Marley was dying of cancer, so Gil was asked to do the first six dates. He ended up doing all 41. And Dr King’s birthday ended up becoming a national holiday (“The Last Holiday because America can’t afford to have another national holiday”), but Gil always felt that Stevie never got the recognition he deserved and that his story needed to be told. The first chapters of this book were given to me in New York when Gil was living in the Chelsea Hotel. Among the pages was a chapter called Deadline that recounts the night they played Oakland, California, 8 December; it was also the night that John Lennon was murdered. Gil uses Lennon’s violent end as a brilliant parallel to Dr King’s assassination and as a biting commentary on the constraints that sometimes lead to newspapers getting things wrong. Jamie Byng, Guardian
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A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family thats about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrinas inexorable winds is the voice of Wards narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her familys raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brothers blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt. Her fathers hands are like gravel, while her own hand slides through his grip like a wet fish, and a handsome boys muscles jabbered like chickens. Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isnt usually just metaphor for metaphors sake. She conveys something fundamental about Eschs fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, whats salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.WashingtonPost
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 10 January 2012