Self-Taught! (Part I: African American Union Soldiers)

In the second week of class, we will focus on Heather Andrea Williams’s book, Self-Taught, with the goal of framing African American Literacies in the 20th and 21st century in this crucial history.

We will begin class by discussing Williams’s work more fully.  But we will also spend part  of this class focusing on the role of African American Union Soldiers during the Civil War as a critical aspect of the history of African American Literacies.

There are, of course, so many intriguing literate characters, literacy events, and teaching moments that we could highlight from Williams’s book:

  • The role of black children themselves, many of whom were born into slavery but who experienced freedom AS the ability to learn to read and write OPENLY (children who would also “read” white paternalism alongside their books, given the ways they would trick northern, white missionaries who couldn’t tell them apart and, thus, report that their names were things like General Lee and Stonewall Jackson)
  • Teachers who crafted their literacy pedagogies and community teachings in hiding during slavery and showed up in full, visible force at emancipation
  •  Black women’s day-planning, all of whom were formerly enslaved, who became “stay-at-home moms” for the first time, solely for the purpose of learning to read and write and attending school with their children
  • the whole arsenal of skills-building underneath all of that financial literacy that let recently emancipated people who made less than $10 a month buy the materials to build their own schools and take care of the teachers (which included physical defense as much as monetary support)
  • the re-organization/re-scripting of menial work, work that looked no different from what black people had done in slavery, by taking every and any free moment or many turns with the plow to get in a quick lesson from the infamous blue-back speller (which became popular, no doubt, in part from emancipated slaves’  extensive use of this  text, a text with the central goal of replacing British English with an American English)
  • the imparting of the communal philosophy of “each one, teach one” to design the teaching of reading and writing (where even small children were considered masterful teachers and expected to share knowledge)

All of these and more could be a point of focus for Williams’s book.  Unfortunately, we can only focus in closely on one aspect.  So we will spend class time looking at one iteration of the literacies that the blue-back speller witnessed: letters and petitions written by black Union soldiers to various commanders and administration;  letters from wives and family members of soldiers to various commanders and administration; letters from soldiers to wives and family and vice versa. Williams compels us to see these African American Union soldiers in the Civil War as ushering in new definitions of literacy: both how one acquires literacy, why, and to what ends.

We will look at a few spaces, directed at teachers, where we can find the online writings of black Union soldiers.  Though these texts are invaluable, these texts have been heavily edited and altered.  While I understand scholars’ decision to do this because they don’t want audiences to assume these men’s ignorance, the editing obscures the histories of literacy that Williams lets us see.  When you begin to realize that for many of these soldiers, they had only been LEGALLY ALLOWED to read and write for less than a year, all of those editing “mistakes” are indications of heroism, not failures to learn mechanics. In class, we will instead use the documentary histories that Ira Berlin, et al have created so that we can see these black men’s actual words, spellings, etc.  From that, with Williams’s research as our guide, we will get a sense of who may have learned to read and write as former slaves and/or as soldiers.  Most crucial, however, is that we have a living testimony and voice of the men and families who pushed the United States much further than it ever intended to go when it enlisted black men and abolished slavery.