This article contrasts the reading pedagogy inspired by the “talking book” and the reading pedagogy described by Frederick Douglass. The talking book offers literacy as a thing to be acquired that can be traded for freedom. “Literacy as a gift” inculcates in students a view of education as a commodity in the marketplace. This promise, education as a gift of freedom, fails—it fails to speak to students today, fails to remedy racial and gendered disparities, and fails by giving students tests to pass that fail to make them think. Douglass, by contrast, sees literacy and freedom as practices, learning to read not as a gift but as theft, and education not inculcating social values but orienting students to resist social structures that would oppress them.
The talking book, what Henry Louis Gates Jr. (1988, xxv) describes as the “ur-trope” of the Anglo-African tradition, is one model for learning to read. For Gates, it was proof, when the racism of literary studies needed proof, of a cohesive, self-referential African American literary tradition. Proof that worked doubly because the trope not only proves the transmission of literary practices across the African diaspora but is also about the transmission of literary practices. The book that James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw (1811), in his 1770 autobiography, witnessed move his master’s lips but that would not speak to him (“this thought immediately presented itself to me, that every body and everything despised me because I was black” ) is rewritten in Olaudah Equiano’s 1789 autobiography as the book he holds to his ear to hear it speak as it does to his master (“I found it remained silent” [2003, 68]), rewritten again in John Jea’s 1811 and Rebecca Cox Jackson’s 1831 autobiographies, among others. The talking book speaks one message: the slave holds the book to his ear, it does not speak, and he remains a slave. But were the book, by some miracle, to speak, he would be forever free. The trope has been rewritten once again in the decades following the civil rights movement in middle and high school curricula as an argument for learning to read as self-emancipation. In an era of educational reform that insists not on the transformation of social structures but on the inspired will of individual students and individual educators, the talking book is made to speak to students, as if to say, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”
You can find this Douglass quote everywhere in education: in epigraphs to books on pedagogy, in lesson plans, on the walls of classrooms around the country. Posters with Douglass’s portrait promising freedom hang in libraries of schools and prisons, often betraying their irony, as in this description from a Colorado prison law library: “On the poster in big letters, Douglas [sic] is quoted, ‘Once you learn to read you will be forever free.’ Freedom is very precious to most Americans, especially if you are incarcerated and have no freedom” (Broome 1995, 32). You must read the quote if your reading level is being tested by the Reading A-Z Level S Book Frederick Douglass: Forever Free (McStotts 2015) and must believe it to move up to level T. What did Douglass mean, the test asks, when he wrote these words: “A. going to school meant you could be a freed slave; B. education opens up doors of opportunity; C. blacks could be freed if they could pass a reading test; D. none of the above.” The answer key says B, but students reading on level S (4.3 grade-level equivalent) might know already that it doesn’t always follow; they might suspect that it really amounts to none of the above.
Students learn this model of reading as an argument for the value of reading, despite that argument’s problems: one would need already to have reading and writing skills in order to access and express the argument for acquiring those skills.1 One must have already learned to believe it to answer the essay question on an Advanced Placement Language and Composition Test practice exam that gives the statement and this prompt, “In a well-written essay, examine the relationship between literacy and freedom in the world today.” The Princeton Review’s Cracking the AP®English Language and Composition Exam (Hartzell 2014, 80) compares two student essays responding to this question, one with “significant flaws” and the other an “obvious success.” It is little surprise that the flawed essay demonstrates less knowledge from books, less familiarity with academic writing, less fluency with language, and “the absence of a strong connection between literacy and freedom.”
In secondary education, we embrace the talking book as the model for how we imagine literacy and freedom to speak to one another, which is how teachers speak to their students—that literacy is freedom. That promise is disproportionately deployed to students of color and to students from low-income communities. Schools and organizations that educate these students make tremendous use of the idea that literacy is freedom2 to advance a central argument: if literacy is freedom, all one must do is learn to read. Students’ success, according to this model, is up to the students themselves. What does it take for traditionally underserved students to succeed? It requires at least two things: an extraordinary effort on their part and the mitigation of structures and systems that would predetermine the limits of their success. On which of these to lean is the choice for those who care most about students’ success. “No-excuses” charter schools make their choice: students succeed by will alone. Critics of “no excuses” decry a blindness to the structural issues that prevent social mobility, an air of corporate endorsement with hints of right-wing defenses for the meritocratic social order, a gorging on teaching labor whose workers’ rights also get the response “no excuses,” a deafness to the needs, issues, and problems of real children, and an overall lack of feeling in the regimented, militaristic daily routines. But these critics sound defeatist when they describe students as locked into a system, poverty as inescapable, and schools as incapable of success. In short, that is no pedagogy either.
Understanding the determinism of social systems is not a recipe for inspired self-education. Perhaps it is reducing a debate about the high school classroom to a debate that often happens within a high school classroom to say that the two sides disagree about the role of an individual’s free will. If one side believes in the power of the individual to overcome all social obstacles, a belief that leans toward right-wing individualism and simplifies social mobility to individual choice (learn to read, gain freedom, then succeed!), the other side believes in the determinism of social forces and institutions, a belief that leans toward a leftist critique and minimizes individual choice in social outcomes (transform society and institutions, and equal educational outcomes will follow). I am not going to pretend to offer a fair and balanced analysis: the leftist represents reality, whereas the rightist represents a delusion. The left version, however, often fails to promise what the right’s individualism promises: reason to commit to the painstaking project of self-education.3 In this article, I argue that Douglass’s writing on learning to read and write provides the link between an individual commitment to social critique and liberation; the talking book model, however, co-opts the language of freedom for the right’s individualism and makes Douglass a spokesman for this message, one he never actually gave.
When the quote “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free” comes attributed, it is to Douglass’s Narrative of the Life (1994c). If you read that, however, you will not find the statement there—or, for that matter, in any of Douglass’s writing. It is most likely a misreading of the moment when Douglass (1994c, 37) quotes his master: “‘If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. . . . Now,’ said he, ‘if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.’” According to Gates, Douglass abandons the talking book’s language of religious conversion in favor of a statement of secular freedom, but at the same time, when Douglass revises the reading education of the slave narrative, he offers a new pedagogy. Whereas the talking book trope imagines literacy bestowing at once and permanently the gift of freedom, Douglass imagines literacy as resistance, which he understands as the practice of freedom. In The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire makes the same distinction between education as receiving gifts of knowledge and education, where students engage as producers of knowledge and producers of social critique. Freire’s (2012, 72) “banking concept” educators are the talking book’s descendants, where the student must supplicate to the generosity of the sources of knowledge in order to gain that knowledge and its power. Douglass (1994c, 42) is a forerunner to Freire’s problem-posing education, for literacy and knowledge do not give him freedom but allow him to see the problem: “As I read and contemplated the subject, behold! that very discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come, to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish.”
One of the goals of this special issue is to consider the implications of treating education as a commodity. The rhetoric of literacy as freedom, invoking the talking book that offers the gift of freedom, turns freedom (and an education that achieves it) into a commodity. As pedagogy, the talking book fails students in a number of key respects. Foremost, it speaks only to the exceptional and abandons the rest. Second, the promise of freedom relies on the absence of other barriers—it relies, therefore, on male entitlement. For Gronniosaw, Equiano, and Jea (1815), literacy promises success because unlike Rebecca Cox Jackson (1987), the only female writer to take on the trope, their racial status alone precludes their commercial opportunity. This article foregrounds black male authors and black male students because they are the primary addressees of the talking book and the ones whom it most fails.
Finally, the talking book model treats both literacy and freedom as measurable accumulations, as test results, abandoning the practice of actually reading. Douglass’s pedagogy, by contrast, makes literacy a practice available for an individual to resist oppressive structures. The blessing of literacy is, for Douglass, not freedom, but discontentment, one that, like Freire’s problems, leads to commitment. In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass (1994b, 217) calls the speech of his master “the first decidedly antislavery lecture” he had heard because, he (1994c, 38) writes in Narrative, “From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.” In the narrative, this understanding makes Douglass an exception, but it is an exceptionality lessened both within the narrative by Douglass’s abolitionist commitment and across the three autobiographies by Douglass’s revisions. The line in Narrative of the Life (1994c, 42), “In moments of agony, I envied my fellow slaves for their stupidity,” becomes “As I writhed under the sting and torment of this knowledge, I almost envied my fellow slaves their stupid contentment” in My Bondage and My Freedom (1994b, 227), which becomes “their stupid indifference” in Life and Times (1994a, 534). By My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass (1994b, 227) has revised the version of the personal agony brought on by learning, adding a line on the universality of the experience: “Liberty! the inestimable birthright of every man, had, for me, converted every object.”
The talking book model, by contrast, is designed for the exceptional. It speaks not to students who would dismantle the lines of racial or class difference but only to the exceptional who would cross over, leaving the lines of difference intact. Neoliberal education reform policies of the past several decades rely on myths of exceptionalism—somewhere deep in the heart of the inner city is the child who does not belong there. Leave the public schools underfunded but give him a voucher so that, bootstraps in hand, he might cross the tracks. Have schools and students compete in order to separate the successes from the failures. Ignore the resegregation of US schools and racially discriminatory resource distribution because some African American students will, no doubt, race to the top.
What Is the Purpose of Literary Education?
As students often point out—and as teachers often worry—the purpose of an education in literature is difficult to name. That learning to read makes you more free is now the common classroom response but was not always so. The first attempt to define national standards for education, published in 1894 by the National Education Association (NEA) Committee of Ten (1894, 86), defined as one purpose of the English class “to cultivate a taste for reading, to give the pupil some acquaintance with good literature, and to furnish him with the means of extending that acquaintance.”4 By 1918, however, the United States found it imperative to define the United States in contrast to Europe and the Soviet Union. The NEA (1918, 14) believed “the work in English should kindle social ideals and give insight into social conditions and into personal character as related to these conditions” so as to equip the student for proper citizenship. Louise Rosenblatt (1938, 21), writing in 1938 for the Progressive Education Association’s Commission on Human Relations, aimed to balance a “teaching of literature [that] involves with equal inevitability the conscious or unconscious indoctrination of ethical attitudes” with a “teaching of literature [that gives] the student the form of emotional release which all art offers” (86). Rosenblatt attempts to resolve the contradiction between literature as social indoctrination and, as her title states, literature as exploration.5
We should not be surprised to find the contradiction between citizenship and freedom in definitions of education. Both Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Friedrich Schiller turn to education to resolve the contradiction between the duties of citizenship and individual liberty; both John Dewey (1998) and Freire, having turned to education, find it resolving this contradiction. Nor should we be surprised to find this contradiction dividing the US Supreme Court in the 1982 Island Trees School District v. Pico (457 U.S. 853 ) decision that a local school board could not remove books from the high school library for partisan or political reasons. Indeed, both the plurality and the dissent agree on one purpose for education, as Chief Justice Warren Burger cites the plurality in his dissent: “The plurality pays homage to the ancient verity that, in the administration of the public schools, ‘there is a legitimate and substantial community interest in promoting respect for authority and traditional values be they social, moral, or political’” (457 U.S. 889 ). Yet Burger, with three justices joining him, contends that the plurality has invented a new constitutional right in claiming, “the right to receive ideas is a necessary predicate to the recipient’s meaningful exercise of his own rights of speech, press, and political freedom” (867). That the ideas one receives might conflict with “respect for authority and traditional values” poses a problem for the plurality’s argument, one resolved by “the special characteristics of the school library” (853): “The school library is the principal locus of such freedom [to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding]. As one District Court has well put it, in the school library, ‘a student can literally explore the unknown, and discover areas of interest and thought not covered by the prescribed curriculum’” (868–69, emphasis in the original). What frightens the dissenting judges is that this freedom might resist the inculcative purposes of education.
They have good reason for believing this: one of the eleven books cited in the case was Eldridge Cleaver’s 1968 Soul on Ice, the first chapter of which details the prison reading that led Cleaver (1999, 24) to attack “all forms of piety, loyalty, and sentiment, marriage, love, God, patriotism, the Constitution, the founding fathers, law, concepts of right-wrong-good-evil, all forms of ritualized and conventional behavior.” Here, Cleaver recalls in Malcolm X’s (1999, 196–97) autobiography a passage that in turns recalls Douglass’s autobiography: “The ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive. . . . My homemade education gave me, with every additional book that I read, a little bit more sensitivity to the deafness, dumbness, and blindness that is afflicting the black race in America.”
Cleaver, Malcolm X, and Douglass form a counterhistory to the history sketched above of the national purposes for reading education. A reading education that wakes a student to be critical of a white supremacist American identity directly opposes a reading education that inculcates the shared values of American citizenship. Theirs is a reading curriculum of counterhistory and exposure within a larger African American tradition, including the counterhistories of W. E. B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson as well as the program for the Black Panther Liberation Schools, one of counterhistory (“We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society”) and exposure (“We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society”) (Black Panther Party 2003, 398).6 For Douglass, reading education serves these two purposes, but, crucially, knowledge does not set him free. In My Bondage and My Freedom, he (1994b, 227, emphasis added) writes: “The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest slavery, and my enslavers. . . . This knowledge opened my eyes to the horrible pit, and revealed the teeth of the frightful dragon that was ready to pounce upon me, but it opened no way for my escape.” Here, as if to avoid the very misprisions enshrined in the “forever free” misquote, Douglass revises the Narrative’s “silver trump of freedom,” writing, “Once awakened by the silver trump of knowledge, my spirit was roused to eternal wakefulness.”
Neoliberal education policies cannot work well with spirits roused to eternal wakefulness; instead, they rely on the pliability of freedom. In his A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey (2005, 6) invokes Matthew Arnold to describe freedom as “a very good horse to ride, but to ride somewhere.” Harvey (7) shows that somewhere to be the “corral of neoliberalism,” where “individual freedoms are guaranteed by freedom of the market and of trade.” In US education policy since the Reagan administration, federal and state officials have used freedom to mean competition in a free market, school choice, and privatization. Every aspect of a child’s education from the freedom to pray in public schools to the freedom to hold teachers accountable in their pay to the freedom take state funding with you to the school of your choice became an argument for individual student freedom. Reading, too, became about acquiring the skills that would enable students’ success in the free market.
Ironically, Douglass himself became the spokesman for this message when, in 1990, Morgan Freeman appeared as Douglass at a White House awards ceremony broadcast as an ABC primetime special, “To Be Free: The National Literacy Honors from the White House.” Freeman, who in this same period performed the voice of Frederick Douglass in Ken Burns’s documentary The Civil War, spoke the first instance of the quote I could find as “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free” (Radcliffe 1990). Freeman, whose surname recalls the emancipation of slaves performing a speech by an ex-slave about “freedom” in an event titled “To Be Free,” unwittingly masks what the term means in George H. W. Bush’s education policy: the free market. If the Reagan presidency laid the ideological groundwork and restricted federal intervention to give states the freedom to scale back antipoverty interventions and civil rights protections, the Bush presidency pushed for more active federal intervention to reform national education toward neoliberal ideology. The Bush education agenda, America 2000, espouses competition-based solutions—choice, vouchers, accountability, tests—with an eye toward improving the nation’s overall competitiveness, not equalizing the disparities within US education: “Today, education determines not just which students will succeed, but also which nations thrive in a world united in pursuit of freedom in enterprise” (Bush 1991, 5). Though they would not be implemented until the following two administrations, Bush’s reforms viewed education as a commodity in the free market. Acquire literacy, Douglass was made to say, and you will enjoy free access to capitalist accumulation.
Two decades later, the Common Core State Standards continue to embrace this language in forecasting the effects of decreasing text complexity in what high school students read: “This bodes ill for the ability of Americans to meet the demands placed upon them by citizenship in a democratic republic and the challenges of a highly competitive global marketplace of goods, services, and ideas” (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers 2010a, 4). The standards then make use of Douglass; the first example for guidance on determining text complexity is an excerpt from Douglass’s Narrative, where he describes learning to read. The example of Douglass serves the unstated inculcative function, telling students why they need to learn to read. But the use opens the discontent that it cannot suppress: “That very discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come, to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish. . . . There was no getting rid of it” (Douglass 1994c, 11).
What the Talking Book Says to Students
Instead of Douglass’s discontent, the pedagogy of the talking book promises a singular achievement of literacy to obliterate disparities created by a history of racism. Yet, in this trope’s original instantiation, it is to black people that the text refuses to speak. As Gronniosaw (1811, 11), the first narrativist of the talking book, writes: “I was very sorry, and greatly disappointed, when I found that [the book] would not speak. This thought immediately presented itself to me, that every body and every thing despised me because I was black.” In Gates’s (1988, 131) account, Gronniosaw’s narrative conforms to the Enlightenment discourse of reason, race, and writing, where “literacy, the very literacy of the printed book, stood as the ultimate parameter by which to measure the humanity of authors struggling to define an African self in Western letters.” Gronniosaw then responds to his own despised state by asserting his rational agency through the act of writing. Gronniosaw’s objection, as an African prince, is not to slavery but that he is a slave. Writing does not dismantle the racialized division of rationality but allows him to cross that line as an exceptional African who can reason. Literacy is the dividing line of reason; literate slaves and ex-slaves may cross that line, but they do so without fully dismantling the racial differences first inscribed by Enlightenment thinkers on reason and writing.
It is not only writing inscribed as racial difference, as a black student once told me (a white teacher): “Black people don’t read.” If the pedagogical reflex is to dispute it, to provide him with the innumerable contrary evidence, the lists of black writers and readers, his logic is sounder than that. For him reading—and not the accident of pigmentation—is the racial distinction. What he means is truly black people don’t read and those who read are not truly black. Those figures who exemplify the capacity of literacy to make one free, those figures to whom the book speaks, are always exceptional. In the first iteration of the talking book, Gronniosaw liberates himself not just from slavery but from the other slaves, representing himself, as Gates (1988, 133) writes, “as no mere common Negro slave, but as one nurtured, indulged, and trained in the manner of royalty everywhere.” Gronniosaw is then like Oroonoko, the African noble with Roman features who happens to have black skin in Aphra Behn’s 1688 novel. Behn (2003) opposes Oroonoko’s nobility with the savagery of some white Englishmen not to endorse universal equality but to show that there are indeed two races of men, noble and slave, but skin color might not be the distinction. Such class prejudices, which predate modern racism, have long been justified by differences in education (or in the believed differences in one’s capacity for education). The student who denies that black people read may be reflecting a broader internalized class prejudice; in his experience, however, race and class are the same distinction.
If Gronniosaw’s literacy transforms him into a race-free Christian, Equiano retains his status as a black man, but literacy transforms him into an exceptional black man. Equiano’s education begins as a slave on a merchant ship with a book that will not speak to him and ends with Equiano as a merchant himself, a figure of power and status in contrast to other Africans. Not that his abolitionist beliefs are compromised, but, as Houston Baker (1984, 38) notes, Equiano comes to believe in a confluence of interests between abolitionism and the slave trade: “If British manufacturers become fully convinced of the profitability of ending the slave trade, then it must of necessity come to an end for lack of economic and political support.”
We might see in Equiano’s faith that the market will free him a similar adherence in contemporary politics to the liberating power of the free market to advance the race. Because such advancement comes through individual black commercial success, exceptions must prove the rule. In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander (2010, 14) uses the idea of “black exceptionalism” to explain how a country that elects one African American man president can incarcerate large percentages of the rest: “The current system of control depends on black exceptionalism: it is not disproved or undermined by it.” President Barack Obama serves as her most emblematic example: “People like Barack Obama who are truly exceptional by any standards, along with others who have been granted exceptional opportunities, legitimate a system that remains fraught with racial bias” (248). Obama’s (2004, 100) own autobiography is fraught with questions of his own exceptionality—reflections that, in his words, “made me question my own racial credentials all over again.” These become literary questions as the student Obama is caught by a friend reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, about which he (103) says: “The way Conrad sees it, Africa’s the cesspool of the world, black folks are savages, and any contact with them breeds infection.” The friend views the book as Conrad does Africa: “This stuff will poison your mind.” Literature, he implies, can trick you into your own whitewashing.
These anxieties for the young Obama produce two literatures: one that strengthens his racial credentials—“Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Wright, DuBois” (85) and discussions of “neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy” (100)—and one, which Conrad exemplifies, that attaches him to suspicion of internalized racism, colonialist sympathies, or secret whiteness. Like Gronniosaw, Obama overcomes these anxieties through writing an autobiography. But even Obama, like other black writers in a tradition of literacy as difference, risks crossing over while preserving the racial distinctions of superiority and inferiority. This is exactly what the talking book accomplishes: “Gronniosaw’s trope reveals him to be a would-be European, a white-man-in-the-making” (Gates 1988, 150). This is what the student meant by “black people don’t read,” despite knowing many individuals, including himself, who do.
One might say that boys don’t read either. Boys don’t read / Those who read aren’t truly boys is some simple playground logic that has proved difficult for educators and parents to refute. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that girls outperform boys academically, especially in reading. The 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (National Center for Education Statistics 2013) data shows the same ten-point advantage for girls over boys among both white and black students,7 a national gendered reading gap that deserves analysis both on its own and intersected with race.8 The intersection of reading gaps, however, leaves black male students in a class all their own in reading, a class that also comprises the primary addressees of the talking book model.
Antebellum black female writers, unlike their male counterparts, do not represent education as part of the pathway to freedom. In the narratives and novels of Harriet Jacobs (1861), Harriet Wilson (2011), and Hannah Bond (Crafts 2002), female protagonists learn to read early and literacy offers no protection from the dehumanizing treatment these books describe. Learning to read in Jacobs and Bond, both who achieve it by the end of the first chapter, seems less integral to the story than as evidence for the author having written it. In Wilson’s Our Nig (2011, 41), completed education inaugurates the protagonist’s suffering at age nine: “[Frado’s] education completed, as she said, Mrs. Bellmont felt that her time and person belonged solely to her.” Jackson, writing around 1830, is the only antebellum female writer we know to trope on the talking book. As Gates (1988, 130) notes, she restages the talking book not in terms of freedom and bondage but “in terms of male domination of a female’s voice and her quest for literacy.” Her brother replaces the master of male narratives; the lessons she learns, however, in asking him to write her letters for her, are lessons of patriarchal dominance. When he reads her dictation back to her it reveals his dictatorial control over her words: “I don’t want thee to word my letter,” she says, “I only want thee to write it” (Jackson 1987, 107, emphasis in the original). As in other instances of the trope, she learns to read suddenly and by divine intervention. Unlike in other instances, reading comes with no reward: “When my brother came to dinner I told him, ‘I can read the Bible! I have read a whole chapter!’ ‘One thee has heard the children read, till thee has got it by heart.’ What a wound that was to me, to think he would make so light of a gift of God!” (108). Unlike for Gronniosaw or Equiano or Jea, the gift of literacy provides no social advancement for Jackson. Instead, she suffers more, as she describes herself “afflicted for instruction” (110). Most important, if the narratives of Gronniosaw, Equiano, and Jea culminate as published works, as both the proof and reward of literacy, Jackson, not published until 1981, is denied even that reward of the talking book. Jackson’s use of the trope as well as the failure of education to make any promises in Jacobs’s, Bond’s, and Wilson’s texts all underscore that the talking book’s promises are predicated on an already present male entitlement; in short, the talking book does nothing for nineteenth-century female authors.
Alice Walker (1983, 73), in her 1967 essay on Jackson in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, does nothing with the talking book, describing Jackson’s scene of literary learning without mention of the trope: “Incredibly Jackson was taught to read and write by the spirit within her.” Walker deftly transforms Jackson’s “gift of God” to a gift from within, shifting the focus to the individual learner while eliminating the book that speaks. Toni Morrison does the opposite when she writes the talking book into her novel Jazz. She explains in an interview, “The voice is the voice of a talking book . . . as though the book were talking, writing itself” (Carabi 1995, 42). Whereas the talking book, in the sense of a book that celebrates orality, that seems to speak in different registers, in different tongues, to its reader is everywhere in African American fiction—in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972), Toni Cade Bambara’s Gorilla My Love (1972), James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), Ntozake Shange’s Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo (1982), Ernest J. Gaines A Gathering of Old Men (1983), James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird (2013), and Morrison’s God Help the Child (2015) to name a few talking books and books about talking—the talking book staged as a scene of learning is conspicuously absent. Against that absence, the saturation in pedagogical exhortations on what is gained by reading makes clear that the talking book model of reading is not about reading. Counterpoised to the literature in which the orality of literature allows for the free play of language, the exhortations of the pedagogue make reading into the accumulation of a valuable commodity. Teachers are then staged to measure literacy’s accumulation rather than teach reading.
John Jea, in his narrative written between 1800 and 1830, pares the talking book down to an accumulation of skill. His talking book literalizes what in earlier accounts remained metaphorical: an angel “taught me to read the first chapter of the gospel according to St. John” (1815, 35). Jea’s account then culminates in an assessment by magistrates, the stakes of which are Jea’s freedom:
The magistrates examined me strictly, to see if I could read, as the report states; they brought a Bible for me to read in, and I read unto them the same chapter the Lord had taught me, as before-mentioned, and they said I read very well and very distinct, and asked me who had taught me to read. I still replied the Lord had taught me. They said that it was impossible; but brought forth spelling and other books, to see if I could read them, or whether I could spell, but they found to their great surprise that I could not read other books. . . . The magistrates said that it was right and just that I should have my liberty, for they believed that I was of God, for they were persuaded that no man could read in such a manner, unless he was taught of God. (37–38)
He achieves his freedom by reading that chapter to a white magistrate; however, it is not reading at all, for Jea can read nothing else. He has not mastered literacy but only memorized one chapter. Thus, Jea’s narrative exemplifies what is most pernicious about taking the talking book as a model for learning to read: it replaces reading with aliterate tricks for social advancement.
If Jea’s literalizing is the conclusion of the logic inaugurated by Gronniosaw, aliterate shortcuts that boost reading test scores without developing authentic reading skills are the pedagogical conclusion of the logic where freedom is achieved through accomplished literacy. Jea’s evaluation must strike any educator as bizarre. He is, in effect, rewarded for his failure—not for being able to read but for being able not to read: “From that hour, in which the Lord taught me how to read, until the present, I have not been able to read in any book, nor any reading whatever, but such as contain the word of God” (38). It seems an ineffective test: how much easier is it to fake illiteracy than literacy? Yet the magistrates see in that ignorance a great miracle of learning.
We can recognize Jea’s method in much of what constitutes reading education in this era of high-stakes testing. In classrooms around the United States, students demonstrate their proficiency to the magistrates of the high-stakes test through mechanized performances of artificial comprehension. Teaching to the test, as Kelly Gallagher argues in Readicide, has contributed to an overall decline in literacy and student willingness to engage with difficult texts. Gallagher argues that high-stakes testing has taken resources for authentic reading out of schools, novels and long works of literature out of the curriculum, and time out of the school day when students can read for enjoyment. The result, he (2009, 23) writes, is that “we immerse students in a curriculum that drives the love of reading out of them, prevents them from developing into deeper thinkers, ensures the achievement gap will remain, reduces their college readiness, and guarantees that the result will be that our schools will fail.”
At some schools, it is even worse. Just as for Jea, “reading” means not reading but the memorization of a single passage, in many middle and high school curricula, reading means following a sequence of steps like circling, underlining, categorizing test questions, and highlighting passages. These are all activities that a strong reader might do—except students can do so without actually reading. The goal is to find the answer to the question, not to read the passage. It is in the schools already struggling most that these practices are most prevalent. This means that low-income and minority students, who often begin their educational careers behind their peers in reading, are disproportionately subjected to reading education that focuses on everything but reading. Some schools have taken an approach that critics describe as a “pedagogical divide” between rich and poor. As English as a second language educator and researcher Jim Cummins puts it, “Poor kids get behaviorism and rich kids get social constructionism” (quoted in Salomone 2010, 161). Behaviorism in reading pedagogy, an oral, direct instruction that produces students who can read aloud fluently without comprehending what they have spoken, is Jea’s reading methods for the No Child Left Behind era.9 And students in this context must feel a little like the writers of these narratives, sitting in classrooms with teachers and benevolent Frederick Douglasses watching them with the message, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free,” as the clock ticks out the time remaining on the state test, picking up the state test passage and wondering, why will it not speak to me?
Douglass and Reading as Theft
If the talking book model speaks too much to exceptional individuals, we know that the reason why the “no-excuses” education model works, when it does, is that it speaks to individuals as exceptional. All successful pedagogy must speak to a student as an individual, as someone making choices for his or her own success. Douglass’s reading pedagogy can speak to an individual as one becoming committed to collective politics. Where the talking book offers gifts of literacy and freedom, Douglass’s pedagogy orients students to work. As Freire (2012, 81) shows, when education is a gift of freedom, teachers set students up as passive, but when they treat education as the practice of freedom, “students, as they are increasingly posed with problems relating to themselves in the world and with the world, will feel increasingly challenged and obliged to respond to that challenge. . . . Their response to the challenge evokes new challenges, followed by new understandings; and gradually the students come to regard themselves as committed.” Douglass provides a model for how reading and writing compose that commitment oriented against an oppressive system.
Douglass’s first antislavery lesson, from his master, is that the slave will take thirty-fold what is given him. He must break the law to learn to read and sets out to be destructive in his education through his “stratagems” and his “plans” of learning (1994c, 39–41). No longer will the silent book, by some gift of God, speak to the pitiable slave; he, instead, will take the knowledge for himself. In My Bondage and My Freedom and Life and Times, Douglass (1994a, 553) makes a legal argument for the right of the slave to steal from his master and from society: “Society at large has bound itself, in form and in fact, to assist Master Thomas in robbing me of my rightful liberty, and of the just reward of my labor; therefore, whatever rights I have against Master Thomas I have equally against those confederated with him in robbing me of liberty.” Though the legality of slavery was specific to certain places at certain times, the logic justifying it—the status (potential or enacted) of black people as property—was universal. Any resistance to this logic (possession of property, possession of literacy contrary to the Enlightenment criterion for personhood) is never just one site of resistance but a challenge to the universal logic. To be able to read is to deny one’s status as property and, in being the abolition of another’s claim to property, is theft. Since the abolition of slavery, the logic that justified it persisted so that these same criteria (possession of property, possession of literacy) justified different forms of discrimination, the most exemplary of which is to deny voting rights. Reading, as prohibited or discouraged, gets reinscribed through African American history as resistance.
What would this kind of reading as theft mean today? Fortunately, our schools are well designed for reading to be acts of theft: one must steal the books when one is given test passages to read, one must steal the time when it is designed with test practice in mind, and one must steal away to do this reading at all. The transformation is, more than that, in orientation, aligned to what Freire describes as the transformation between students oriented to the passive acceptance of the world as it is and students oriented toward world critique. Reading in the classroom today can share with theft a destructive orientation; it can be oriented toward dismantling structures of oppression, resisting education’s impulse to inculcate social values. Once again, the Common Core State Standards make use of Douglass’s Narrative as a sample performance task for middle school students: “Students provide an objective summary of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative. They analyze how the central idea regarding the evils of slavery is conveyed through supporting ideas and developed over the course of the text” (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010b, 93, emphasis in the original). Such an assignment asks students to reproduce the text in a new form, to demonstrate comprehension through this reproduction to prove they have received the knowledge. The point, however, is to do something with it. What is clear to educators, then, is that the steps up Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive tasks—to move from summarizing Douglass to applying his argument to another historical moment, to synthesizing his argument within historical moments, and finally to evaluating his argument—is not merely about rigor, about making students think more deeply, but a political necessity, so that education might not lose the name of action. That is not a call for teachers to make content more relevant to students’ lives or to do the work of making connections for students. No doubt, such connections will already be made by the student for whom this text, as Douglass (1994c, 42) writes within it, gives “tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance.” Douglass, like Freire, sees students not as receptacles for the teachers’ knowledge but already having thoughts that can be oriented and require only tools of expression. Students need only be oriented to see literacy not as a gift that will make them free but as a practice of resistance. By giving just this orientation, teachers might give students the inch, so that they can take the ell.
Many thanks to Henry Louis Gates Jr., Amanda Claybaugh, Augusta Rohrbach, and the anonymous reader at American Literature for helpful suggestions that greatly improved this article.
1 A timeless problem in education from Pythagoras to Schiller: “They would need to be already wise, in order to love wisdom: a truth which was already felt by the man who gave philosophy its name” (Schiller 2004, 50). While Schiller’s solution is to turn to the training of sensibility, Paulo Freire and Frederick Douglass, I argue in this article, solve the problem by making education not the accumulation of knowledge and skills but an active practice.
2 Many urban charter schools, especially, for reasons to which I return, those with a “no-excuses” model, link literacy and freedom. Teach for America, of which I am an alumnus, also orients teachers to do the same. As the content curator for TFA’s online resource exchange for secondary English teachers, I reviewed hundreds of year-long plans, nearly all of which begin with a unit on the value of reading; in most cases, that unit invoked Douglass and made literacy equal freedom. TFA has no curriculum but orients its teachers to design curricula linking literacy and freedom, which can tend toward the talking book or toward pedagogies of resistance. The choice parallels another set of choices in TFA’s approach, between a top-down reform model and a model where its teachers are instrumental in ongoing school improvement and community empowerment. In recent years—and as a result of some leadership shifts—the organization has been moving from the former to the latter, a shift that would require moving away from the reading pedagogy of the talking book to one closer to the pedagogy offered in Douglass’s work, not on his posters.
3 Or radical left pedagogy that would prepare students to change the world becomes eclipsed by the immediate demands to prepare students for the world as it is. The Black Panther Liberation Schools are a case study. In 1969 the Black Panther Party expanded its political education program to include elementary and middle school students. As education historian Daniel Perlstein (2002, 265) describes, the next few years saw a pedagogical transformation away from education as political organizing to one that more closely resembled the pedagogy of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s 1964 Mississippi Freedom Schools or the Progressive Education Movement of decades earlier, including unrevolutionary approaches to reading, writing, and mathematics. By 1973 the stated goal of the Intercommunal Youth Institute was to “teach Black children basic skills necessary to think in an analytical fashion in order to develop creative solutions to the problems we are faced with” (Perlstein 2002, 265). By 1974, now renamed the Oakland Community School, the curriculum focused on the grammar and mechanics of standard English. Perlstein (266) concludes of the new Panther pedagogical mission that it was “framed as the incorporation of poor Black youth into the mainstream of American life rather than the abolition of an oppressive social order.”
4 Prior to this, a purpose for reading education had not been defined because reading modern literature was not a component of secondary education. Reading literature became central only beginning in the 1890s with calls from educators such as Harvard president Charles William Eliot (who served on the NEA Committee of Ten) for students to read great works of literature. An 1891 Educational Review article on literature in elementary school quotes Eliot: “I believe that we should substitute in all our schools real literature for readers” on the grounds that readers “are not real literature; they are but mere scraps of literature” (Hardy 1891, 145–46). Emphasis in English classes on reading literature was so novel that by 1894 the NEA Committee on English went on to clarify, “By the study of literature the Conference means the study of the works of good authors, not the study of a manual of literary history” (National Education Association 1894, 90).
5 By beginning with an account of how education inculcates, Rosenblatt embraces the Progressive Education project, as John Dewey (1998, 10) writes in the same year, “an educational philosophy which professes to be based on the idea of freedom may become as dogmatic as ever was the traditional education which is reacted against.” Rosenblatt (1938, 229) balances inculcation with freedom in writing: “Literature offers a release from the provincialism of time and space. . . . More than ever before it is essential that the individual be liberated from the provincialism of his own particular family, community, or even national, background.”
6 The two aspects of the Black Panther education plan illustrate the two parts of the pedagogical project of African American history: the counterhistory itself, like the first sixteen chapters of Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction or the series of Negro history books by Carter G. Woodson—A Century of Negro Migration (1918), The Negro in Our History (1922), The Rural Negro (1930), and The Negro Wage Earner (1930)—and the analysis of its pedagogical absence, as in the final chapter of Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction or Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933). The curriculum of the Black Panther Liberation Schools, even across the curricular changes described above, consistently retain, as in Du Bois and Woodson, the black worker as the protagonist of history (Perlstein 2002, 268).
7 Female/male average scale scores are 293/284. White female/white male average scale scores are 303/292. Black female/black male average scale scores are 273/263 (National Center for Education Statistics 2013).
8 As an example of this analysis, bell hooks (2004, 34) writes in We Real Cool: “Most boys from poor and underprivileged classes are socialized via mass media and class-biased education to believe that all that is required for their survival is the ability to do physical labor. Black boys, disproportionately numbered among the poor, have been socialized to believe that physical strength and stamina are all that really matter. That socialization is as much in place in today’s world as it was during slavery.”
9 Some tests, inadequate ones, reward this type of instruction, but testing itself is not the problem. In fact, the animosity toward standardized testing (sometimes on the basis that students of color are disproportionately victim to its excessive impositions) finds strange bedfellows with states-rights arguments for decreased federal invention in public schools. Long-standing discrepancies between rich and poor students, between white students and students of color, often the product of discriminatory state and local policies, will, as a result of this unified movement, depend more on state and local policies to be rectified. For example, the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015 (S.1177, 114th Cong.), the bill reauthorizing the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act that “ends the federal test-based accounting system of No Child Left Behind , restoring to states the responsibility for determining how to use federally required tests for accountability purposes” (Every Child Achieves Act 2015, 1), has prompted a coalition of civil rights groups (among them the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the National Urban League) to this objection: “The power of [reporting disaggregated student achievement data], however, is greatly curtailed by the absence of meaningful accountability. States must be required to identify schools where all students or any group of students are not meeting goals and to intervene in ways that raise achievement for students not meeting state standards” (Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights 2015, 1). Standardized testing, at least since the passage of No Child Left Behind (2001), has been the primary way of identifying these discrepancies and determining interventions, even if these interventions have accomplished less in actually rectifying them.