Reading, So Vital, God’s Own Gift (Frances Ellen Watkins Harper)

Reading, So Vital, God’s Own Gift (Frances Ellen Watkins Harper) February 12, 2019

I am convinced if more people read well many of our disagreements would vanish. We learn to read, but then let the skill go. I compare even sports writing from my childhood to the sports writing of today and with notable exceptions, the stories today are written in English that is less complex and rich in expression.

This is very bad in a Republic based on a written Constitution; citizens must be free to try, including as free as possible within the written constraints.  We lack the vocabulary for liberty. The hard reality of morality requires language to allow physical beings to approach the metaphysical. Language is a bridge between what is unchanging, the Good, and us, mortal man doomed to die.

As a result, the Republic that will not read cannot long endure. The ideas that form the basis of that society become inaccessible, as the illiterate and the literate who choose not to read perish from the eternal Kingdom.

The person who will read, who takes her literacy and uses the power to approach the ideal, is liberated from the temporal. You cannot make a slave of such a person. They are not subsumed by fleshliness. The eye sends the mind ideas through the brain and the rest of the body. The mind looks to the Mind and uses these ideas to create a home, the basis of a Republic. 

Nobody understood this truth better than the novelist, activist, poet Frances Harper.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born free and lived to make sure everyone else would be. She was an abolitionist, suffragette, and temperance activist: opposed the enslaving power of substance abuse. She was for expanding culture, Christian values, and justice for every American.

She knew that literarcy leading to reading was necessary, if not suffient for the achievement of her goals. If you cannot read, then you must be led. No number of emojis can convey a complex thought and science cannot be done in Tweets. Philosophy and theology require sentence structure that will not always be N-V-N.

Knowing how to read enables, really reading empowers. The skill is not enough: literacy must lead to reading or education is wasted. The literate man who does not read is the functional illiterate, just as the free man with abstract rights he never uses is a functional slave.

Harper celebrated literacy that reads:


Very soon the Yankee teachers

Came down and set up school;

But, oh! how the Rebs did hate it,

—It was agin’ their rule.

Our masters always tried to hide

Book learning from our eyes;

Knowledge did’nt agree with slavery —

’Twould make us all too wise.

But some of us would try to steal

A little from the book,

And put the words together,

And learn by hook or crook.

I remember Uncle Caldwell,

Who took pot liquor fat

And greased the pages of his book,

And hid it in his hat.

And had his master ever seen

The leaves upon his head,

He’d have thought them greasy papers,

But nothing to be read.

And there was Mr. Turner’s Ben,

Who heard the children spell,

And picked the words right up by heart,

And learned to read ’em well.

Well, the Northern folks kept sending

The Yankee teachers down;

And they stood right up and helped us,

Though Rebs did sneer and frown.

And I longed to read my Bible,

For precious words it said;

But when I begun to learn it,

Folks just shook their heads,

And said there is no use trying,

Oh! Chloe, you’re too late;

But as I was rising sixty,

I had no time to wait.

So I got a pair of glasses,

And straight to work I went,

And never stopped till I could read

The hymns and Testament.

Then I got a little cabin

A place to call my own —

And I felt as independent

As the queen upon her throne.

This woman Chloe might be enslaved, but she was never a slave. She read the words of liberty and was freed. If you only hear the words of a minority of warped Christians that defended slavery and misused the Bible, you will miss the truth. Read the words of the enslaved. What did they find in the Bible? They found, overwhelmingly, words of liberty.

The people of a Book can never be slaves, because literacy contributes to liberty. How? Harper’s poem points the way:

Reading requires imagination. The drudgery of slave-work cannot abide imagination.

Learning to read (especially as an older person) is hard and requires discipline. Slavers did all they could to destroy internal values. If’ a slave ever had the capacity to say ‘no,’ then slavery would end or develop weird justifications easy to refute.

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