Book Review: Self-Taught

Self-Taught:  African American Education In Slavery And Freedom, Heather Andrea Williams

Reading this book made me think of Thomas Sowell, and that is generally a good thing.  The writer of this book had an obvious interest in promoting the agency and self-regard of black people as it relates to education.  I could not help but think of the wide disconnect that exists between the attitudes that black children and adults demonstrated in this book (at least indirectly through the sources cited herein) and the laziness and lack of interest in education that the author here occasionally ascribes to poor southern whites.  After all, the people the author writes about, and praises, were so passionate about the role of education in helping them rise from poverty and dishonor that they risked life and limb both during and after slavery, teaching others once they had learned a little about reading and showing a great deal of initiative in demanding schools and textbooks and qualified teachers.  If only such initiative can be shown now by many of those who whine about structural racism and view themselves as helpless to improve their position in the face of imagined white privilege.  This book is a stinging rebuke to such a lack of personal responsibility and acceptance of agency for one’s education.

The author organizes this roughly 200 page book into nine chapters that are organized in generally chronological but also topical order.  The author begins with acknowledgements and an introduction that posit the agency of blacks in the 19th century in their search for education.  After that the author begins with a chapter on the secretive and often illegal education that slaves sought before freedom (1).  The author then discusses the coveted possession of literacy in the early days of freedom (2).  There is a chapter on the clamor among black soldiers for education (3) during the Civil War and the advocacy for education among blacks that was widespread across gender and age boundaries (4).  The author talks about the local grassroots organization of schools for blacks (5) in the postwar period and also the role of black teachers in schools for blacks during Reconstruction (6).  This leads to a discussion of the role of textbooks in schools for freed slaves (7) as well as the diverse identities of students in those schools, which included poorer whites who were unable to find schools for themselves (8).  The book then ends with a discussion of the common school systems for black and white students (9) that threatened white supremacy in the South, after which there is an epilogue and an appendix that deal with the question of law and education, as well as the usual notes, bibliography, and index.

I am ultimately not sure whether or not the author wishes to view this historical examination of the education of blacks as having relevance to the contemporary period.  The author is pretty unsparing about the racialist assumptions that white reformers had about the superiority of whites and the favoritism that both slaveowners and white Northerners showed to lighter-skinned blacks who, quite understandably, struck them as being more like them.  The author seems to view favoritism towards others who are like them as a problem when it comes to the behavior of whites, although such tribalistic behavior is by no means only something that one finds among lighter-skinned human beings and is indeed a large part of the problem of contemporary identity politics.  At any rate, anyone who reads this immensely detailed book with any shred of enthusiasm for the prospect of slaves and freed people seeking education as a means of raising their status, and as a means of provoking poor whites to seek education to keep pace themselves, and that audience certainly includes me, will find much to enjoy and celebrate here.  Indeed, all genuine education is self-education in the sense that we cannot be educated without our consent and our longing and search for education is an aspect of taking responsibility for our place in the world, and that is something that we can endorse no matter who seeks to learn and grow.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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