literacy sponsor, American Slavery, Frederick Douglass


African Languages and Societies


Applying concepts from Deborah Brandt’s “Sponsors of Literacy” to Frederick Douglass’ “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” explains how American slavery functioned as an institutional literacy sponsor, and how Douglass achieved literacy against the opposing forces of his sponsor. During the antebellum period, the American slavery institution, fueled by pro-slavery Anglo Saxons, maintained a social structure that guaranteed political, economic, social, and legal advantages for whites over African Americans. Afraid that literacy acquisition for African Americans might lead to their self-empowerment and eventual freedom, pro-slavery whites dedicated themselves to anti-literacy legislation and other measures aimed at keeping African Americans illiterate. Despite these strenuous efforts, Frederick Douglass acquired literacy by repurposing his sponsor’s resources toward literacy projects in his ‘neighborhood’ classroom. Douglass’ description of his literacy journey runs remarkably parallel to Brandt’s discussion about ways in which the ‘sponsored’ can overcome self-interested ‘sponsors,’ despite obstructions to literacy access routes, and stratified opportunity along race and ethnicity lines. Understanding how literacy sponsorship operated during the 19th century sheds some light on the ongoing literacy crisis today.

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