Classroom Applications

When Mistress Gouldin comes upon Zephie teaching Alec to read, she shouts, “You know it is against the law to teach slaves to read.” In anger she tries to wrench the primer from his hands.

This dramatic moment turns on the fact that literacy held the potential to erode the slave owner’s power. Teaching a slave to read violated a basic mechanism in the system of control.

In today’s world everyone is expected to be able to read, and achieving universal literacy is a fundamental goal of our education system. Alec’s Primer offers an opportunity step back for a moment to reflect on why this is so and to consider the central role that literacy plays in our everyday lives. Here are some thoughts on ways in which you and your students can explore the importance of being able to read.

  • As a class create a master list of times during the day when you need to be able to read.
  • As a class, talk about how being able to read makes you independent. If you couldn’t read, how would you need other people’s help?
  • Think together about how reading helps people make important decisions. What kinds of decisions would be harder to make if you couldn’t read?
  • Could you get a job if you couldn’t read? Can you think of a job where you wouldn’t need to be able to read?
  • What does reading have to do with having fun? Do you need to be able to read in order to do any of the things you like to do?
  • Think together about other ways (besides reading) that people get information.
  • Back in the time when slaves weren’t permitted to learn to read, how do you think they learned to do new things? How did they find out about the world outside their towns?
  • Ask people you know how they learned to read. Did they learn in school or from a friend or family member? Was any part of learning particularly difficult? Do they remember the first “chapter” book they were able to read by themselves for pleasure?
  • With radio, television, and the internet, do you think reading is still important? Why or why not?
  • Visit a class of younger students and help them with their reading.

The foremost spokesman for literacy as empowerment in the lives of slaves was Frederick Douglass, whose Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave includes the chapter “Learning to Read and Write.”

A brief account of Douglass’s learning to read is available in the online text of Sandra Thomas’s A Biography of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

The Great Books Foundation site has an online discussion guide for Douglass’sNarrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave which in its introduction explores Douglass’s thoughts on the ways in which learning to read and write changed his life.