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Hello, my name is Valorie. I have a Master's Degree in History and a license to teach-- I have been both university professor and public school teacher. Currently, I am a middle school social studies teacher. I love horror movies and spooky things. Every day is Halloween. I am also a passionate book blogger.

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Book Review: 23:27 by H.L. Roberts

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Book Review: "When I Can Read My Title Clear" by Janet Duitsman Cornelius

Title: "When I Can Read My Title Clear": Literacy, Slavery, and Religion in the Antebellum South 
Author: Janet Duitsman Cornelius 
Genre: Nonfiction - American 
Finished: March 10, 2011

In "When I Can Read My Title Clear", Janet Duitsman Cornelius states that though much has been written about American slavery, little attention has been paid to slavery literacy. It is her intent to present information, sectioned off into six topical chapters, in the hope of inspiring further discussion and research (6). For this reason, Cornelius presents no overarching thesis or argument, though the book does present a number of her own interpretations and counters claims made by other historians. For example, Cornelius objects to Eugene Genovese's assertion that evangelists fully embraced the cause of slavery, which allowed them to win the trust of slave masters and safely preach the gospel. Cornelius feels that this interpretation is wrong, however, and plainly states her own opinion that acceptance was really just the language of appeasement, which evangelists utilized in order to have access to the slaves they wanted to educate (48). While Cornelius certainly proves earlier in the book that many evangelists rejected slavery and certainly may have catered to slave owners opinions through appeasement, much of the evidence that Cornelius presents also counters that generalized and optimistic image of the evangelical preacher. A subsequent quote by Methodist preacher James O. Andrew that their goal was not to civilize slaves or encourage them to freedom, but only to make holy their deaths would seem to prove that not all evangelists were simply speaking to appease, or to prove that Andrew did not make such a statement in sincerity. Cornelius even presents evidence of Christian preachers who insisted that slavery was a blessing to both the slave and the slave master. Some preachers even taught that educating slaves would, in fact, make them better slaves (46-48, 52). It is impossible, therefore, for Cornelius to claim that proslavery sentiment was entirely absent from evangelism, which, through "mysterious providence" did not always see slavery and Christianity as contradictory. That is not the only instance in which Cornelius fails to make her point with sufficient strength to convince. 

In chapter one, Cornelius promises to discuss the various reasons for white reluctance toward slave literacy in early North America, including the ways in which slave owners sought to restrict a slave's right to education (5). What Cornelius implies is that the chapter will be about the power of white resistance, especially after revolts aroused a sense of threat for the permanence of the slave institution, which white southerners adamantly protected. Throughout the chapter, Cornelius mitigates the strength of white resistance by stating that the rules against allowing slaves an education were rarely enforced, and that, in the end, only four states total had laws passed banning slave education, which were also rarely enforced. She admits herself that "the sweeping extent of these laws has been exaggerated." In addition, with her emphasis on various religious groups and their efforts to bring education to slaves, Cornelius seems to prove the opposite of what she claims will be discussed (18-22, 33-34). What the reader is left with is a sense that the white power structure actually cared very little about slave literacy, as evidenced by their ambivalent political stand on the matter. Cornelius can be praised for her careful use of sources in many cases, and in her attempts to point out where sources may be misleading, which is particularly useful for people new to the subject, or to students of history who are learning historical research methods. In one instance, after spending pages talking about the ways slave masters facilitated the learning of their slaves, Cornelius reminds the readers that we should not assume the picture presented was the total shape of society because such stories were often written in order to justify slavery and counter criticism (108). 

However, there are moments when Cornelius’s use of sources and the information contained within can be called into question. When discussing slave testimonies that speak of how slaves learned to read and write, Cornelius uses the autobiographies of the Federal Writers Project. The findings of the FWP, she feels, support her claim that by the 1840s restrictive literacy laws of the decade previous had been relaxed. One of the major pieces of her evidence is that most of those interviewed by the FWP claim to have learned to read between the years of 1856 and 1865 (63). It must be noted that the FWP was interviewing slaves who were still alive in the 1930s, and slaves who learned to read earlier in life would have been older than most of those who learned to read in the 1850s and 1860s, and therefore may not have survived into the 1930s. In another instance, Cornelius discusses the punishments slaves would face if caught learning against their master's will, one major punishment in particular being amputation. One of the stories used is of an uncle of a Mr. Henry Nix who had his finger removed because he stole a book to learn to read and write (66). Cornelius assumes from this story that the punishment was because the slave was trying to read and write, but by the quote she presents, nothing directly indicates this. It could be the case that the slave had his finger removed for stealing. 

Though the book is about slave literacy in the antebellum period, Cornelius includes an epilogue that describes the conditions of learning after slave emancipation. The inclusion of the epilogue strengthens Cornelius's claims that literacy was important to slaves as a mark of their humanity, as a way to liberate the soul, as a way to read the Bible, and as a way to resist power because it is these values and the lingering importance of them that drove many blacks to push for literacy after emancipation (150). Cornelius's book also gives the reader a sense of the diversity not only of slaves, but slave work and masters, however unintended this is. The slave testimonies of chapter 3 in particular, which discuss the challenges, obstacles, and dangers slaves faced when trying to learn to read are the most enlightening part of the book not only for what they say about slave literacy, but about slavery itself and all of the variations within the institution (74-78). Cornelius is able to achieve such a varied picture because she used a number of sources, both primary and secondary, in her research. Featuring prominently are slave narratives, which are the sources that give the book life. Cornelius also uses a number of archival materials and manuscripts, government documents, and newspapers. As far as secondary sources go, Cornelius clearly has a very good background in her subject because she uses the research of a number of well known and respected historians of African American history such as Carter G. Woodson, Eugene Genovese, and Herbert Aptheker.

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