The Legacy of Literacy in The Black Community
by L. Arthalia Cravin
A few days ago a report on a local nightly news indicated that approximately 80 percent of African American males routinely drop out of a local Colorado Springs community college and do not graduate. The report indicated that approximately $100,000 has been earmarked to assist in increasing the enrollment and retention rate for African American males.
I have been preparing for an upcoming presentation of a recently discovered cookbook, written in 1866, by an African American woman named Malinda Russell. Prior to this discovery it was believed that the first cookbook by an African American was written by a woman named Abby Fisher, who wrote a cookbook in 1881 entitled, “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking.” The Russell cookbook was accidentally discovered last year in box of old cookbooks by a California cookbook collector. The cookbook then made its way to the University of Michigan’s Museum of Culinary History in Ann Arbor. I recently received a copy of Russell’s cookbook sort of in exchange for submitting my own cookbook to the Museum.
Malinda Russell’s cookbook is only 39 pages long, and contains about 250 recipes, which she calls “receipts.” Upon first reading the cookbook, I questioned her use of the term “receipts” for the word “recipes” only to discover that she was quite correct in using the word “receipts,” because during her time any compilation or list of entries, including recipes, was called “receipts.” So much for my modern-day intellect. Malinda Russell’s life is briefly chronicled on the first page of her book that she wrote after she left Greenville, Tennessee in 1864, during the Civil War under a Union truce flag. She was heading to Michigan because she had been robbed twice of her hard earnings. The first sentence of Malinda Russell’s cookbook about herself states that she was a third-generation free African American, her grandmother having been set free in Virginia. After two thorough readings of Malinda’s cookbook I was obligated to rid myself of some age-old “Negro miseducated” stereotypes about African American literacy.
I began by reading the scholarly book written by Phyllis M. Belt-Beyan entitled, “The Emergence of African American Literacy Traditions: Family and Community Efforts in the Nineteenth Century.” Ms. Beyan’s book led me to numerous other studies, too often overlooked and ignored, clearly showing that from the moment of enslavement, Africans continued the literacy traditions brought with them from Africa. These studies also show that for succeeding generations of slaves and those set free, that their quest to become readers, writers and “ciphers” was foremost in their quest for individual freedom. In one case, upon being told that he was too old to learn to read, one slave said: They said to me, “Oh, Chole, you’re too late; but as I was rising sixty, I had no time to wait; So I got a pair of glasses, and straight to work I went, and never stopped till I could read the hymns and Testament. Then I got a little cabin a place to call my own, and I felt as independent as the queen upon her throne.”
What Ms. Beyan’s book, as well as many others, now reveal, after much independent research, is that African Americans have overcome tremendous obstacles to become literate, including bombings and every conceivable form of terrorism all aimed at preventing slaves from becoming literate. Not unlike the statement that Tommy Lee Jones made in the movie “The Fugitive” about his relentless search for Dr. Richard Kimble, to “search every doghouse, whorehouse, and outhouse,” Ms. Beyan says that the African American quest to become literate has been similarly focused and intense: “Whether one’s path led to clandestine teaching and learning that took place in a house, a cabin, a wooded spot, a church basement, or down by the riverside, such literacy events were African American forerunners or a rehearsals for the development of their own formal community schools and institutions of higher education.”
And so we come to the sad statistics about the local community college—and everywhere else across America, where students, too often students of color, are opting out of becoming literate. For a host of reasons, too numerous to mention in this short article, many of this generation’s African American have betrayed their strongly rooted tradition of becoming readers, writers, and “ciphers.” Too many of this generation of African Americans fail to understand, as the slaves did, that becoming literacy is itself an exercise in personal freedom. Too few of this generation of African Americans truly comprehend the sacrifices made by our forefathers to learn to read—and to do so after working 14-hour days in the hot sun under brutal masters. Likewise too few of this generation truly comprehend the risk that so many of our forefathers took in hiding out in the woods, or in night-time camp meetings, to avoid detection to learn to read and write. Even with every possible resource now available, from libraries, to free books, to online books, many in this generation adamantly refuse to carry on the proud heritage of literacy acquisition that our forefathers left behind. African American illiteracy carries within it the seeds of a looming tragedy with implications too grim for speculation, if the trend does not reverse itself. Remember the “Million Man March?” It can now be aptly renamed, “The Million Man March to Prison.” Beyond incarceration, a return to slavery will be just one of the catastrophic consequences of illiteracy. Extermination is a sad part of human history, and if we are not careful, the words, “never again,” will soon become, “again and again.”
© Copyright 2008 – L. Arthalia Cravin. All rights Reserved. No part of this commentary may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.