Sapphire, literacy and liberation

It’s remained on my mind that someone asked for clarification on the statement that a philosopher at a Historically Black University like Howard would associate philosophy with the struggle for equality (not that I’m criticizing the question, it just keeps resurfacing).  In this same week I was talking about Frederick Douglass in a class on Utilitarianism, to illustrate Mill’s point that between obedient illiteracy and consequent freedom from punishment, or learning to read on the sly and its attendant risk of pain, Douglass chose literacy.  (Higher qualities of pleasures, and all that.)

Then the bloggers here at FP were sent a link to this interview with Sapphire, on her choice to make the illiterate character, Precious, the writing voice:

 Precious is often described as illiterate, but you chose her to be the written voice of the book. You explicitly show she is engaged in the act of writing, not speaking, the narration.

Exactly. That harkens back to the earliest traditions of African-American writing, where the acquisition of literacy was acquisition of freedom. In the early slave narratives, you see links between literacy and freedom. If you could write letters that allowed you free movement, you could escape. For example, Frederick Douglass learned to read on the sly and that enabled him to write the note that said, “My slave is going to the market, let him go.”

Funny that all three of these things came up in the same week, yes?

(The whole interview is worth reading, as is the “About” page, if you’re interested in this magazine for the City of Asylum/Pittsburgh project.  Thanks to the Sampsonia Way webmag staff member who brought this particular interview to our attention!)

Query from a reader

We’ve just had this query from a reader. I think there are real and difficult issues about how much personal risk vulnerable members of the profession should take on, so I’m curious to see what you all think.

I have been asked by a journal to review a collection of papers. Only one of the (20+) contributors is a woman. Would it be appropriate to highlight such a fact in a review?

I’m undecided and could use advice. On the one hand, I’m professionally vulnerable (currently jobless). I worry that even gently `calling out’ the editors may make me enemies. On the other, this seems like something worth doing. The collection’s topic is far from obscure, and plenty of women work on it–making the dearth of women contributors all the more striking.