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!)

4 thoughts on “Sapphire, literacy and liberation

  1. I’m so glad they contacted us! We might try to keep a look out for other posts that come close to our interests.

  2. Some language theorists *might* say that learning “white” language, the language of the oppressor, is another form of slavery…just a thought. :) Push was a great novel but not for the faint of heart. Thank you for finally posting something I know a little something about. :)

  3. My pleasure, Synaesthetik, but the thanks should really go to the staff at Sampsonia Way webmag, who brought this interview to our attention. I forgot to thank them in post (blush).

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