The Suppression of Knowledge: An American Legacy

*This essay was originally written for a Graduate writing class on December 14, 2009.

Bertolt Brecht, the renowned German poet and playwright once wrote, “Hungry man, grab that book.”  Brecht recognized the power of knowledge and understood; one way to satiate hunger is through knowledge.  The American political system has long understood what Brecht referred to and has systematically denied literacy and education to the lower classes as a means of maintaining socioeconomic division, power and supremacy.  Although education is considered a civil right due every citizen of this country, one would have to consider the quality of such education and scrutinize the disparities between the educational institutions of the dominant and non-dominant societies.  By examining the roots of educational inequality and reaching a broad understanding of the limited educational opportunities offered people of color, this inquiry aims to look beyond what is offered, to what can be had, to find meaningful and creative ways of using knowledge and literacy as a means of liberation.

From the time Americans began importing African slaves, Americans understood perfectly well the threat educated slaves posed to their system of control and capitalism.  At the time, public policy mandated strictly enforced laws to suppress education and deny even the basic elements of reading and writing to the slaves.  In his essay, “From Freedom to Manners: African American Literacy Instruction in the 19th Century,” Tom Fox notes, “In the 1830s, following various publicized slave rebellions, fearful white Southerners believed that literacy contributed centrally to rebellion, and enacted legislation that made teaching and learning literacy illegal” (120).  However, slave owners never really needed laws to legitimate their use of extreme violence in preventing slaves from becoming literate.  In his study, Fox cites “…several stories of slaves who told of the punishments – from whipping, to amputating fingers to prevent writing, to hanging – for getting caught reading and writing.  It was clear to any slave in the early 19th century that reading and writing were risks” (120).

The risk of torture, humiliation and even death, were not enough to prevent some slaves from secretly educating themselves however.  Take for instance the self-education of Frederick Douglass as he tells it in his now canonized slave narrative, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, perhaps the most widely read of all the narratives.  After tasting education and wanting more, Douglass recalls: “I have found that to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason” (315).  Douglass’ recognition of the blatant denial of education as a means of oppression, prompted him to educate himself at all costs and despite any risks.  In fact, he realized immediately that for him, literacy was the only means of liberation.  One day, he overheard his former slave master say to his wife, “…if you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.  He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master” (Douglass 274).

His slave master was absolutely correct.  Once educated, Douglass could no longer accept the dehumanizing reality of slavery.  His self-education did not come at a small price however.  Douglass writes: “In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast.  I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own. Anything, no matter what, to get rid of thinking! It was the everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me” (279).  Nonetheless, this torment eventually set him free, because once Douglass learned to write, he literally wrote himself a pass to freedom.  “So entrenched was the belief that slaves could not write that a slave could write himself a “pass” that would allow him mobility or facilitate his escape” (Fox 123).  Douglass had written himself into existence, using literacy as a means of acquiring physical and intellectual liberation for himself and documenting his brutal experience in hopes of inspiring others.

After the Civil War, emancipation led to reconstruction, “when the doctrine of white racial supremacy was officially removed from public policy, [and] was replaced with an unwritten doctrine of white educational and cultural supremacy” (Williams and Ladd 266).  Southern whites reasoned, since they could no longer prevent blacks from being educated, they would nonetheless control their education and institutionalize literacy instruction, by way of the Freedmen’s schools.  The Freedmen’s Bureau, which was the government agency tasked with helping to empower and assimilate freed slaves into the larger society, neglected other areas of need such as housing, jobs, economic, political and social development, and focused their resources on education.  “As the Freedmen’s Bureau became more and more concerned with schools, and as it took control of even the schools run by blacks, literacy instruction for ex-slaves switched from literacy for liberation to literacy for social control” (Fox 125).  The aim for blacks was no longer to seek literacy in order to free themselves from the shackles of slavery, but to liberate themselves from the ideological teachings of a white dominant society.

In order to appease disenfranchised white former slave owners and politicians during reconstruction, the Jim Crow laws were enacted, which guaranteed the separation of blacks from white privilege.  These laws mandated segregation in all public institutions, particularly within the school system.  It is no secret that the segregated black schools were vastly inferior in the quality and nature of their education as compared to all white schools.  It was during this stifling climate that another notable African American writer was able to surmount the odds, self-educate and free himself from a dominant racist society that would not afford him the means of empowerment or upward social mobility.  Richard Wright, in his autobiography, Black Boy, recalls his burning desire to become a writer: “I was building up in me a dream which the entire educational system of the South had been rigged to stifle.  I was feeling the very thing the state of Mississippi had spent millions of dollars to make sure that I would never feel; I was becoming aware of the thing that the Jim Crow laws had been drafted and passed to keep out of my consciousness” (186).

At a very young age, Wright realized that the system was not set-up to truly educate him.  He understood that the way to his liberation was through literacy, and the only way to achieve this was through self-education.  Like Douglass, who had written himself a “pass” to freedom, Wright had also written himself a fake note with the forged signature of his white boss that gained him access to the library where he borrowed two books by H. L. Mencken, a critic of American democracy who would have approved of Wright’s subversive act of self-empowerment.  He remembers: “I finally wrote what I thought would be a foolproof note: Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy – I used the word “nigger” to make the librarian feel that I could not possibly be the author of the note – have some books by H. L. Mencken?” (Wright 270)  Upon the success of this first acquisition of knowledge, Wright continued to draft further notes and his trips to the library became frequent; reading for him became a passion.  But like Douglass, knowledge offered him the insight of self-awareness, forcing him to recognize his lowly position in life, creating a tremendous source of anxiety.  Wright recalls: “In buoying me up, reading also cast me down, made me see what was possible, what I had missed… I could endure hunger.  I had learned to live with hate.  But to feel that there were feelings denied me, that the very breath of life itself was beyond my reach, that more than anything else hurt, wounded me.  I had a new hunger” (274).

His hunger was ultimately satiated with more and more books.  Wright eventually fled to the North, where he was free to read and write and think and finally feel a sense of his own humanity.  Wright was an exception however, because the segregation in the school systems continued until 1954, when Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark decision in the United States Supreme Court ruled segregation in the public schools to be unconstitutional.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 eventually repealed the remaining tenets of the Jim Crow laws.  Largely due to the public pressure pulsating in the streets of America, the Civil Rights Act was intended to help enact educational, social and economic justice and equality.  The protest movements were in large part led by two schools of thought: one, the non-violent peace movement of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the other, the more militant movement of Malcolm X.  Unlike King, who was well educated and received a Doctorate from Boston University, Malcolm X reveals yet another example of a young black victim of mis-educaton who eventually made the leap and found the means to educate himself.

It was in prison that Malcolm X discovered his hunger for knowledge.  Under incarceration, the seed was planted that would eventually grow into an entire protest movement for the struggle toward Civil Rights.  Before prison, Malcolm could barely read or write.  He educated himself by copying down every word in the dictionary, down to the punctuations.  Once he was able to understand the words, he expressed how literature opened up a whole new world to him; one he didn’t even know existed.  Feeding his hunger for knowledge, Malcolm remembers: “ …from then until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn’t have gotten me out of the books with a wedge” (173).  It took a long prison sentence for him to recognize his inferior position as a black man in America.  While in prison Malcolm recalls: “In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life” (173).  Literacy had set him free.

Although schools by this point had long been desegregated, they remained far from equal.  A huge divide still existed between urban, under-funded schools and their suburban, privileged counterparts.  To counterbalance this continued injustice, programs like Affirmative Action were signed into law, which were meant to guarantee, among other initiatives, that colleges and universities open their guarded gates and admit more students of color.  In 1970, the City University of New York became one of the first schools in the country to implement open admissions, which “guaranteed to every city resident with a high-school diploma a place in one of its eighteen tuition-free colleges” (Shaughnessy 387).  As a result, CUNY was overwhelmed by a large enrollment of students who, under normal admissions standards, would not have been accepted into college and would have been neglected the opportunity at a higher education.  This new type of mis-educated student forced the university to reconsider its curriculum and implement courses to help these students “catch-up” to the rest of their peers.

Mina Shaughnessy, a pioneering educator in the CUNY school system, was tasked with developing remedial writing courses to help these students develop college-level writing skills.  As a result, she coined the term “Basic Writers,” which she used to refer to students “…who had been left so far behind the others in their formal education that they appeared to have little chance of catching up, students whose difficulties with the written language seemed of a different order from those of the other groups, as if they had come, you might say, from a different country, or at least through different schools, where even very modest standards of high-school literacy had not been met” (Shaughnessy 388).  Ironically however, these students did not all come from other countries, or even other states, they were mainly students of color, from the poorer neighborhoods of the inner-city, whose education was far inferior in quality and resources to those of the better city neighborhoods.  Shaughnessy noted one consistency in the attitude of these students: “They were in college now for one reason: that their lives might be better than their parents’, that the lives of their children might be better than theirs so far had been” (388).

Given the opportunity, these students, like so many that have entered colleges and universities since the gatekeepers opened their doors following the Civil Rights Act, have proven their eagerness to satisfy their hunger for learning and improve their lives and that of their families.  Despite desegregation, too many urban schools were still being underfunded and thus remained locked in a de facto segregated state.  In a scathing attack on the inequalities of the American school system, Jonathan Kozol documented the great disparities between funding for urban schools as compared to suburban schools in his book, Savage Inequalities.  According to Kozol, “Average expenditures per pupil in the city of New York in 1987 were some $5,500.  In the highest spending suburbs of New York (Great Neck of Manhasset, for example, on Long Island) funding levels rose above $11,000, with the highest districts in the state at $15,000” (84).

This inequality is not limited to comparisons between urban and suburban schools however, since Kozol reveals a deeper injustice, in some cases, within the same inner-city districts.  When examining District 10 in the Bronx, which comprises of the mostly white, affluent Northwest (Riverdale) section and the Southeast, poorer and heavily nonwhite section, Kozol discovered a huge divide in quality and resources.  Kozol notes: “The local board decided to give each elementary school an equal number of computers, even though the schools in Riverdale had smaller classes and far fewer students” (84).  As a result, the schools in the more affluent neighborhoods had twice the number of computers in proportion to their student populations (Kozol 84).  He noted how one school in a lower income area had 1,550 students, even though they had a capacity for around 1000; how that same school had only about 700 books in its library, with no librarian, while a school in Riverdale, within the same district, had almost 8000 books and fewer students (Kozol 94).  Given this example, it is not surprising that students from poorer neighborhoods are inherently disadvantaged with an inferior education.  How are they expected to compete with students from more privileged communities?

To try and address this question and the many inadequacies plaguing inner-city schools, the US government passed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001, which was intended to equalize school systems across the board.  However, with its heavy emphasis on testing standards and accountability, and very little on quality and funding, NCLB has done little to equitably distribute educational opportunities across communities.  “For example, the curriculum in schools seems to have narrowed to accommodate increased testing and accountability, so that children do not have opportunities to engage in a wide range of literacy practices,” notes Stuart Greene in his book, Literacy as a Civil Right (3).  In some cases, school districts have lowered their standards in order to avoid state penalties, thus sacrificing the students’ capacities to learn effectively.  Green goes on to claim, “unfortunately, increased testing has resulted in a reductive curriculum that focuses language learning on phonemic awareness and skills, preventing students from developing a repertoire of strategies for increasing their abilities to comprehend, interpret, and produce texts of their own” (7).

Technology too, which was believed to be the great equalizer through the project to expand technological literacy, has done little to close the gap between the rich and poor, or improve the educational opportunities needed for economic prosperity.  In her essay, “Technology and Literacy: A Short About the Perils of Not Paying Attention,” Cynthia L. Selfe states: “If we pay attention to the facts surrounding the project’s instantiation, however, we can remind ourselves of the much harder lesson: in our educational system, and in the culture that this system reflects, computers continue to be distributed differently along the related axes of race and socioeconomic status and this distribution contributes to ongoing patterns of racism and to the continuation of poverty” (1171).

While education moves closer to, and becomes more dependent on technology as a teaching method, students in poorer communities tend to fall further behind their more affluent counterparts, so that instead of closing the gap, technology in education is actually creating a digital divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

Despite all the political interventions, some well intentioned and some not, there still remains what Kozol calls a “savage inequality” within the educational institutions of America.  Given the historical implications of slavery, reconstruction, segregation, Jim Crow, institutional racism, desegregation, the Civil Rights Act, Affirmative Action, open admissions and No Child Left Behind, it is surprising that any number of students from poor, non-dominant communities are even able to excel at the college and university level.  One answer can be attributed to their hunger for knowledge and the need to feed that hunger.  History has shown that throughout America’s turbulent past and even its present condition, knowledge and education has been denied and institutionalized as a means of oppressing a certain segment of society.  But history has also shown that within the system, it is possible to use literacy as a means of liberation.

Literacy by itself, however, does not always guarantee liberation, or upward social mobility and self-empowerment.  It takes a little more inner strength to actualize educational enlightenment and achieve tangible intellectual success via literacy and knowledge.  One commonality shared by historical figures like Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright and Malcolm X, besides their oppressed realities, was hunger; a hunger for knowledge, a hunger to improve their conditions, a hunger to free themselves from the oppressive shackles of a limited education.  Knowing that they could not achieve their liberation within the confines of the American educational system, they found creative means of self-education and were able to transcend themselves out of the dark and into the light.

Considering the historical and present realities of the substandard quality of education for urban and poorer communities, students educated in these environments need to work much harder in order to compete in the job market with their more privileged counterparts. This unequal reality, though deplorable and profoundly disturbing, can be at times disheartening for students, and understandably so, but recognizing and acknowledging that such a disparity exists can also become a positive and enlightening experience.  This insight can serve as a source of fire to fuel the flames burning within and motivate disadvantaged students to move beyond their limited expectations, to break the bonds that drag their intellectual capabilities to the ground.  Yes, the road to knowledge will be riddled with obstacles to overcome, hurdles to leap over and tribulations to surpass, but the payback can be profoundly rewarding once literacy liberation is attained.

Notwithstanding the politically professed notion of freedom, equality and education for all, the reality on the ground speaks something different.  Part of the problem is that students from urban and lower income schools are not even aware they are being short-changed with an inferior education.  In their innocent naïveté, they tend to assume that the way they are learning with such limited resources in their schools and environments, and the quality of their education, are normal across all communities.  As educators in these school systems, teachers need to go beyond the curriculum, and try to teach awareness and recognition of this historical educational divide.  Educators should teach students to strive for more, motivate them toward self-education, to find within themselves a hunger for greater than they know, to turn their inequality on its head, eat it up, swallow it whole, regurgitate it and use their new found knowledge to uplift themselves, their families and future generations to follow.  Educators need to reinforce the message: “If you are hungry, grab that book.”

Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an African Slave.” 1845. The Classic Slave Narratives. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.

Fox, Tom. “From Freedom to Manners: African American Literacy Instruction in the 19th Century.” The Norton Book of Composition Studies. Ed. Susan Miller. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2009. 119-128.

Greene, Stuart, ed. Literacy as a Civil Right: Reclaiming Social Justice in Literacy Teaching and Learning. New York: Peter Lang, 2008.

Kozol, Jonathan. Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools. New York: Crown Publishers, 1991.

Selfe, Cynthia L. “Technology and Literacy: A Story About the Perils of Not Paying Attention.” The Norton Book of Composition Studies. Ed. Susan Miller. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2009. 1163-1185.

Shaughnessy, Mina. “Introduction to Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing.” The Norton Book of Composition Studies. Ed. Susan Miller. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2009. 387-396.

Williams, Joyce E., and Ron Ladd. “On the Relevance of Education for Black Liberation.” Journal of Negro Education 47.2 (Summer, 1978): 266-282.

Wright, Richard. Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth. New York: Harper and Row, 1966.

X, Malcolm. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove Press,1966.


About Wilson Santos

Wilson Santos is a writer, filmmaker, music producer, DJ, spoken word artist, graphic designer, entrepreneur and college professor. And he makes a hell of a Mojito too.

Posted on July 3, 2012, in Essays. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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