Book History

Literacy: Power, Cultural Authority, and Marginalized Voices


“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”– Frederick Douglass

Literacy: Power, Cultural Authority, and Marginalized Voices

Literacy is commonly thought to be an acquisition that constitutes freedom. There is a powerful assumed relationship between the achievement of literacy through education that, when combined, can become the pathway to social and economic progress. However, the ways that literacy has successfully functioned as a tool to freedom within marginalized communities has often been rendered invisible by the dominant ideologies about literacy. This happens because of the ways in which cultural authority works to subvert skills outside of “traditional” literacy that allows for certain identities, practices, and contents to maintain power. Therefore, in order to break down the social hierarchies that sustain the assumptions of how literacy functions, an exploration of the cultural circumstances that have limited marginalized communities is needed to reexamine power relations within the literary field.

African American Literary Societies

In analyzing African American literary societies and reading practices in the 19th century, Elizabeth McHenry complicates assumptions about African American illiteracy in Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies by considering the literary activities they exercised. A better understanding of black literacy can be made by examining how African Americans achieved the skills that are generally associated with literacy without attending school and securing an education. Essentially, the common assumptions about black illiteracy rates during this era represents contemporary thought that African Americans didn’t understand how to use alternate resources to become literate or to be able to communicate effectively with their white oppressors. However, the general presumption that blacks were incapable of literacy in nature fails to acknowledge that “their incredulity also reflected the extent to which maintaining the balance of power between black and white Americans was dependent on maintaining the belief that blacks were fundamentally inferior to whites in part because of an inability to exhibit signs of intellectual sophistication or reason” (McHenry 32). These common assumptions about literacy rates thus become challenged through the black women’s clubs that worked toward developing cultural skills as a forms of literacy. Considering that the bulk of African American women were denied access to education, the mental disciplines that they practiced in the clubs was what lead to their eventual intellectual recognition among their fellow white clubwomen. The clubs were able to create a space that allowed for engagement, effective communication, and social interaction that prepared them for the local and national meetings that gave them an opportunity to represent their literate capabilities through their research and presentations. This self-education that was practiced and attained within the clubs can thus question how literacy is measured and how its measurement can provide for an assessment of the culture of a given time period.

Literacy can thus be explored through the ways that it was practiced outside of reading and writing. The research and presentations of the club papers by the clubwomen emphasizes the conviction that there is a way to transcend the dominant associations between race and illiteracy through groundwork and development as a community. This concept can be further explored through the white clubwomen who experienced and consumed the black women’s speeches, which “illustrates the extent to which black clubwomen capably represented themselves through their literary work; in doing so, they redefined black womanhood for those who were skeptical about a black woman’s intelligence or her capabilities” (McHenry 464). The black clubwomen’s success in displaying their literate capabilities not only shuts down the link between African Americans and their inadequacy to become literate, but it also complicates the belief that a complete education is what allows for an achievement of literacy. Rather, the self-education that was achieved within the clubs displays that cultural competence and awareness can lead to the same furnishings of an education earned from a school. Eventually, this awareness becomes a way for African American women to gain mutual support and confidence for their future communities: “women who have daughters capable of culture can do nothing better for womankind, as well as for the daughters, than to give them the advantage of a college training, or an education that will have an equivalent value in the quality of their intelligence” (McHenry 459). However, although African American women literary societies were able to illustrate their intellectual capabilities, the literacy rates from black women during the 19th century have still remained invisible. This then asks how literacy is measured, who measures it, and why the rates continue to be disguised within the black women communities.

Power and Social Ideologies

The notion of the relationship between education and social agendas is discussed by Dana Nelson in The Word in Black and White. She questions the common Western views of achieving literacy through education as way to achieve freedom, “particularly knowledge begins with literacy, and freedom is constituted by the possibility of moral, economic, and social advancement” (Nelson 140). However, as the African American women literary societies have exemplified, formal education is not directly linked to literacy nor is it needed in order to achieve freedom and social advancement. Rather, it was the dominant white refusal that didn’t allow for this attainment to happen: “but of note as well was the white inability to imagine that slaves might be able to communicate in ways other than those the white community recognized. To say that blacks were denied written literacy is not to say that they were illiterate” (Nelson 148). The ideology of literacy then and the ways that it has been measured have focused on social contexts and its use as a tool rather than on the cultural ways that the “illiterate” made use of the skills from the literate within their community. Thus, an examination of this relation between literacy and culture can further signify how the concept of African Americans and illiteracy were connected “between the ways in which white citizens conceived of white literacy, and the ways in which they conceived of black (particularly slave) literacy” (Nelson 142).

Further, the system of relations between black citizens as innately illiterate and white citizens and their use of literacy to achieve freedom can be explored through Michel Foucault’s concept of the “apparatus” in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & Other Writings. Foucault applies the “apparatus” in many ways, one by looking at the formation which “has as its major function at a given historical moment that of responding to an urgent need” (Foucault 195). For this reason, the “apparatus” can be seen to deal with the dominance, strategy, and power that have formulated race and black subservience according to a variety of social, religious, and political dilemmas within the dominant Anglo-American community. The “urgent need” during the turn of the century could be the rise of free blacks in the urban North that threatened the “apparatus”: “evidence of literary skill and demonstration of literary character would refute the claims of racists and proponents of slavery that the African was innately inferior and therefore, ‘by nature,’ fit for nothing but slavery” (McHenry 85). Therefore, when thinking about how race is functioning, the strategic skills that, according to Foucault, are always connected to the “apparatus” would be the “discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions — in short, the said as much as the unsaid” (Foucault 194) that continue to render black cultural literacy as invisible. However, when thinking about how the “apparatus” of race is used as a response to white needs, it displays that race is elastic, with the ability to change and conform across a span of decades and social ideologies. Race is thus adaptable, and the “apparatus” is always dealing with a play of power that condition the relation between race and subordination.

Considering that race was strategically used to respond to urgent needs, the communities that formed to be the African American women literary societies can be seen as what Benedict Anderson terms “imagined communities” in Imagined Communities. Anderson claims that the nation is limited, sovereign, and a community, and it “brings us face to face with the central problem posed by nationalism: what makes the shrunken imaginings of recent history (scarcely more than two centuries) generate such colossal sacrifices? I believe that the beginnings of an answer lie in the cultural roots of nationalism” (Anderson 7). As the ways that literacy has come to be defined is seen to be complex and closely related to social ideologies, the sense of the meaning of literacy becomes an assessment of the nation itself.  The black literary societies can be seen as a form of an “imagined community” because they are limited by the boundaries of the “apparatus;” they are sovereign in their freedom within their club from white control; they are also a community because of the “horizontal comradeship” and the “fraternity that makes it possible, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings” (Anderson 7). Although the beliefs about general literacy were beginning to become problematized through clubwork, this “imagined community” started to spread outside of the club and reach other people by the use of different literary forms. Black readership brought together men and women across the nation, who were virtually unknown each other, and demonstrated ways to achieve freedom away from its common association with literacy and education. This is the premise of their “imagined community, as “these fellow-readers, to whom they were connected through print, formed, in their secular, particular, visible invisibility, the embryo of the nationally imagined community” (Anderson 44). With this, an examination of print culture and the ways it was used to achieve black literacy can not only further measure literacy in its cultural efficacy, but also investigates the power that is held in the superior literary forms.

Literary Forms

The degree to which black Americans were understanding text, language and communication can be seen through their usage of literary forms that move away from the dominant. For example, in 1830, David Walker released the Appeal (a pamphlet that was secretly distributed among the black community) to call for a revolution against the white oppressors and gain freedom. The use of this literary form “both reinforced and augmented authorities’ fears that rebellious activities led by blacks — free or slave — presented a significant threat not only to the economic stability of the system of slavery but to the personal slavery of whites within the region as well” (McHenry 26). Namely, the fears exhibited by the white citizens was caused by the level of literacy that the Appeal displayed. Hence, since education was generally denied to black citizens, the social control that the education system instigated through literacy becomes apparent and the “apparatus” of academia is the response to the threat of black literacy to maintain white superiority. The literacy apparent in this powerful literary form further problematizes the ideology of literacy, and deepens the ways its cultural capacity achieves freedom away from the education system.  The Appeal can thus be seen as a document that exemplifies the beginnings of black nationalism and “also signaled the impossibility of keeping print, especially ephemeral sources of it, out of the hands of black Americans” (McHenry 33).

Another substantial literary form that was used by black Americans in their “imagined communities” was the newspaper. “The newspaper was at the heart of a new political strategy for the free black community: because its ability to communicate a common message to a wide audience and thus facilitate organization,” (McHenry 89) making it a literary tool that helped the them raise awareness and promote literacy within their communities. Anderson discusses the ways that the newspaper contributed to the beginnings of black nationalism and the sense of commonality that was promoted across a span of culturally and socially same people. Mainly, “we have seen that the very conception of the newspaper implies the refraction of even ‘world events’ into a specific imagined world of vernacular readers; and also how important to that imagined community is an idea of steady, solid simultaneity through time” (Anderson 63). Therefore the form of the newspaper can be seen to have helped support an “imagined community” and become a form of an institution that promoted cultural literacy. More specifically, the American newspaper Freedom’s Journal complicates the ideology of literacy and its relation to whiteness and education through its encouragement of cultural literacy. The content of the newspaper includes a diverse type of reading material such as vignettes and narratives that were specifically intended for the black citizens who were able to read to orally and spread the information to the “illiterates” in their community. This practice is a representation of the ways that literacy was spread through cultural practices. However, despite this promotion of cultural literacy within the black communitites, the power within literacy was still generally associated with a specific type of content in white reading culture. The type of material that was written in Freedom’s Journal was considered to be a form of entertainment and imaginative text, which was still dominantly thought of as a reading activity that did not contribute to social status and acceptance. Rather, “‘proper’ reading was associated with study or work rather than with amusement, and it required vigorous attention and mental application for full benefit and appreciation” (McHenry 105). Therefore, despite the capacity of reading, writing, and strategies of promotion displayed in Freedom’s Journal, white literate standards continued to render cultural literacy as inferior.

By returning to the literary forms used in African American literary societies, the power connected to “proper” reading and dominant literary forms can be challenged and reconsidered. For example, the clubwomen used print as a tool “to fully appreciate the value of print as a means of widely publicizing injustices and communicating the political position of the club members when in 1894 they used a printed text to respond to an especially heinous and, in the last decade of the nineteenth century, seemingly ubiquitous crime: lynching” (McHenry 464). The ways that the clubwomen responded to social and political issues were through leaflets, pamphlets, and other literary texts that were easily distributed to raise awareness to both black and white citizens. The type of literacy manifested in their responses problematizes the social ideologies or the “apparatus” that considers these types of literary forms as reading that is not “proper.” However, the strategies to maintain power that Foucault claims is used within the “apparatus” can be complicated through the widespread dissemination of these literary forms: “‘The reception of the leaflets has revealed to the club a line of work which has been little used and which the club can incorporate with its other work with advantage,’ they wrote of their experience” (McHenry 465). The power of the printed word within and outside of African Americans’ “imagined communities” suggests a rethinking of the social views on texts and literary forms that perpetuates the confines of literacy and the marginalized. The literary forms of pamphlets, leaflets, newspapers, and club papers not only shut down the idea that literacy can only be gained through education, but it also asks why these types of literary forms are not considered “proper” reading. Thus, by further exploring cultural context, the privileges that are associated with white literacy and dominant literary texts can be explored to reconsider social hierarchies and ideologies.

Gender and Reading Practices

The African American women’s literary societies were not only dealing with oppressions from ideologies of literacy and race, but ideologies of gender as well, and it is important to explore how these social ideologies have formed conclusions about the ways that literacy functions. Jennifer Monaghan addresses the common theories about gender and literacy teaching practices in “Literacy Instruction and Gender in Colonial New England.” In the deliberation of the types of literary skills that should be available to women in their education, women were chosen to be prohibited from learning to write because it was considered a practice in career preparation: “writing was considered a craft, subject to all the limitations of access that implied. The gender bias implicit in the term ‘penmanship’ was not fortuitous: writing was largely a male domain. This was particularly true as it related to the gender of the instructor: men taught writing” (Monaghan 60). Reading was then not regarded as a specialized skill nor a gateway to behavior that would threaten social hierarchies. Thus, by delving into an examination of the cultural circumstances that shaped the experiences and reading practices by women, the ways in which literacy is measured and taught within the educational system becomes problematized. For example, Monaghan asks, “how well could someone read who could read but not write? The colonists themselves were aware that there were differing levels of literacy” (Monaghan 73). In fact, the ways that nonwriters had read would fit the “traditional” ways that literacy has been perceived by their modes of communication and interpreting the meanings of texts, however the troubles that they would have would be with the meanings of certain texts that were given value, yet denied access to them. With this, it is the “apparatus” that was introduced by Foucault that defines this structure of heterogeneous elements that is “always inscribed in a play of power, but it is also always linked to a certain coordinates of knowledge which issue from it but, to an equal degree, condition it. This is what the apparatus consists in: strategies of relations of forces supporting, and supported by, types of knowledge” (Foucault 196).

To further examine how reading practices work as a method of cultural literacy, Kate Flint’s The Woman Reader views limited reading as a method of enlightenment and transcendence: “from one point of view, literature could be said to build on and develop faculties which were already considered to be present within women, and to be a natural and valuable part of their being” (Flint 124). Although the plays of power are working within education to deny women access to the culturally valued texts, an exploration of the ways that women used their limitations to achieve freedom can complicate how ideologies of literacy are upheld through institutions of academia. An additional investigation of the relation between women’s reading and transcendence is discussed in Barbara Sicherman’s “Sense and Sensibility: A Case Study of Women’s Reading in Late-Victorian America.” Sicherman focuses on the Hamilton family: an upper-class, highly educated family with a variety of literary interests, in order to suggest “the need to modify assessments of how women read fictional texts. It also casts doubt on current generalizations about late-nineteenth century reading and suggests that women’s reading behavior may have diverged from that of men” (Sicherman 202). This examination illustrates how women were able to use their limitations to achieve literacy through cultural awareness. The ways that they used reading as an outlet to understand their surroundings and oppressions, like the African American literary societies, problematizes the link between “traditional” literacy and its use to achieve freedom. Rather the limitations in both circles of women were what lead them to freedom, however their achievements are still portrayed as subordinate in the “apparatus” of the literary field.

With the analysis of the Hamilton women’s reading practices, limited reading and writing practices can be seen to achieve freedom rather than the common relation between literacy and freedom through education: “for the Hamilton women, reading offered the occasion for a relatively unmediated experience, exemption from artificial social conventions, and an invitation to fantasy and imaginative play” (Sicherman 208). Therefore, the freedom to read in a way that was not taught through the strategic relations in educational systems allowed them to understand their own limitations and find their possibilities and independence through reading. Although women practiced reading in school like the men did, “in contrast to the imagination-numbing way in which the classics were habitually taught to boys, girls’ education had the advantage that it did not require additional stimuli to encourage pupils to read texts which in any case were intrinsically more interesting than Caesar’s Commentaries” (Flint 125). Hence, the view on the literacy that is learned through education and its association with freedom is a concept that has been maintained through dominant ideologies, or the “apparatus,” which fails to consider the cultural circumstances that makes the accomplishment’s from the marginalized unseen.  If the practice of literacy within these “imagined communities” could be seen through a cultural lens, the outcomes of their denied access to achieving literacy through education displays that the ways that literacy is achieved outside of the confines of education are more enlightening and satisfactory. The Hamilton women exemplified this concept through their experience with reading, which was much different than their brothers’ experiences: “books also gave the Hamiltons a way of ordering, and understanding, their lives. They provided a common language and a medium of intellectual and social exchange that helped the women define themselves and formulate responses to the larger world” (Sicherman 209). With a new reconsideration of the achievement of literacy outside of social systems, cultural authority can now be explored to question why and how these literary practices have widely remained invisible.

The ways in which cultural authority is sustained is seen through Janice Radway’s investigation of the Book-of-the-Month Club in A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire. Harry Scherman’s invention came to be a book club with a committee of “experts” that were chosen to select specific books to be read by the club’s subscribers. The scandal in Scherman’s club lies in its contribution to “the ongoing debate about the consequences of mass-produced standardization, especially within the literary field itself” (Radway 221). In thinking about Flint’s examination of reading practices and the education system where boys generally read the books that had a form of value correlated to them, the Book-of-the-Month Club dealt with the same exercise of power by elevating certain books to its members. These types of institutions and systems and the authoritative figures who are affiliated with them use their social status to regulate and protect dominant ideologies in the literary field, and target the citizens who don’t have the same opportunities. Again, the power that is sustained in these organizations can be seen through the “apparatus” that is sustained through strategies to maintain power: “something which is a ‘power’ seems to me to be based on a misguided analysis, one which at all events fails to account for a considerable number of phenomena. In reality power means relations, a more-or-less organised, hierarchal, co-ordinated cluster of relations” (Foucault 198). Therefore, like the African American literary societies and the threat they posed to white citizens through their acquisition of literacy, the citizens who aren’t authoritative figures in the social hierarchy can be seen as a threat to the education system and its teachings of literacy. The strategies to control subservience can be preserved by making the uses of cultural literacy and literary forms by the marginalized to remain unseen in the “apparatus.” The figures who possess power, such as the Book-of-the-Month Club judge Henry Canby, recognized the authority that they had over the maltreated and “understood their desires to be continuous with his own and therefore felt confident that they could be trained, elevated, and educated to the pursuit of rationality, beauty, and truth” (Radway 242).

So far, the education system has become a powerful outlet and institution of power that help to continue the affiliation between specific identities and cultural authority. In Flint’s analysis of women’s reading and schooling, she discusses the ways that politics and the newspaper were banned from women’s classrooms and “even within higher education, strict standards could prevail in relation to what it was, or was not, considered suitable for young women to read” (Flint 129). These restrictions represent how power is working in education to make the awareness of certain forms of cultural literacy and progression within certain communities as imperceptible For example, the newspaper Freedom’s Journal and its manifestation of literacy levels in black communities would have been restricted from entering the classroom. Consequently, the education system was contributing to the invisibility of how cultural literacy functions and the effectiveness of literary forms by maintaining strict boundaries with the students. Much like the Book-of-the-Month Club, the authoritative figures within the education system “could not identify easily with the larger population they were supposedly attempting to inform and to guide, in part because their own social position and identity depended on their ability as a group to legitimate their special expertise and therefore their cultural authority” (Radway 259). Therefore, the power that the education system holds can be broken down and rethought through the literary texts that are rendered visible to the students by examining the assumptions of specific genres and locating the ways that they are culturally constructed.

Power and Associations with Genres

After establishing how authority and power works to subvert the enlightenment found in reading practices and cultural literacy, the ways in which they affect the associations with genre and popular taste further examines how control is working through literary texts and cultural value. In Jane Tompkins’ article “Masterpiece Theater: The politics of Hawthorne’s literary reputation,” cultural authority and genre associations are investigated through writers Nathaniel Hawthorne and Susan Warner and the binary of their successes. In regards to Hawthorne, his writing was valued within “the circle of well-connected men and women who controlled New England’s cultural life at mid-century [who] thought of themselves as spiritually and culturally suited to raise the level of popular taste and to civilize and refine the impulses of the multitude” (Tompkins 339). Therefore, this small and elite socio-cultural network had the power to dictate the literary texts that were considered significant and were thus taught within the education system. As seen with the unseen recognition given to African American cultural literacy and women’s reading practices, certain circles of power have the influence to dictate the people and the practices that are regarded as inferior. In an analysis of Susan Warner’s career, someone who was once discussed alongside the culturally valued authors during this time, she later becomes redefined when her literary connections failed to be as critically viable as Hawthorne’s: “the circumstances that created each author’s literary reputation were of the same kind in either case — that is, they consisted of the writer’s relation to centers of cultural domination, social and professional connections, blood relations, friendships, publishing history, and so on” (Tompkins 341). However, although Warner’s career was predicated upon her cultural relations, the affiliations were the ones that lead her to lose her status within the circle of critics.

As Warner’s downward spiraling career exemplifies the issues with power and cultural authority, the genre switch that she had to make in order to maintain a career further displays how, like race, genre is elastic and has been modified to fit cultural needs over a span of decades. As Warner and her family were becoming increasingly socially isolated, she made a conscious decision to change her genre of writing to that of religious text: “the audience for religious books was large, stable, and provided an outlet…at a time when changes in the economic and social environments created the context within which literary realism flourished, the Warner sisters guaranteed that their novels would be read as religious rather than literary discourse…” (Tompkins 342). With this, despite that the religious genre had a stable reading community, the point that manifests out of her genre alteration is that religious texts are not considered a high-brow genre from the circle of critics. This complicates the associations of genres and cultural status as the attention that was given to Hawthorne’s famous Scarlet Letter started with a religious critique that attacked the novel for being “unchristian” (Tompkins 337). In returning to Anderson to consider his analysis of the prior significance of the religious genre and specifically biblical texts, he claims, “we have here for the first time a truly mass readership and a popular culture within everybody’s reach” (Anderson 39). Hence, the status that the religious genre used to possess in the literary field was altered due to cultural circumstances and evolution. This switch emphasizes the importance of considering the cultural context that gives value to certain texts by the people who wield authority, and how authors, literary forms, and certain identities can be oppressed if they don’t conform: “It is not that critics suddenly discovered limitations that they had previously failed to notice, but that the context within which the work appeared had changed the nature of the work itself” (Tompkins 342).

Another genre that requires a look at the relation between cultural context and status is the slave narrative. McHenry discusses the substantial black writer and antislavery lecturer Frederick Douglass and his perceptions on the common assumptions about the slave narrative genre: “he was also aware of the extent to which the exclusive demand for ‘truthfulness’ in the slave narrative threatened to effectively silence black writers whose perceived value lay in the political effectiveness of their stories while their creative, artistic abilities and literary style went unrecognized” (McHenry 120). This correlation between context and status returns to the use of the newspaper as a tool to promote literacy within the black “imagined communities.” Whereas the acquisition of black literacy was regarded as misleading because the content in the newspaper was more related to entertainment purposes rather than a “proper” form of reading, the genre of slave narrative was held to the same standards. Therefore, the assumptions that are related to the slave narrative, such as that the authors make use of their language to discuss topics such as human rights, black subordination, and the pursuit of freedom, are exactly the dominantly presumed understandings that Douglass advocates against with “the ironic dichotomy between the romantic but ultimately insincere rhetoric of American revolutionary ideals and its genuine expression in the narrative of fugitive slaves” (McHenry 121).

Thus far, the “apparatus,” cultural authority, and their effects on literacy have worked together to link identities and relations of power. D.F. McKenzie discusses how the social processes of acquiring literacy deals with assimilation and power in “The Sociology of a Text: Orality, literacy, and print in early New Zealand.” As the power of the printed word was previously signified in Freedom’s Journal, “a serious historical concern, with any manuscript culture, in its fullest ramifications, cannot be divorced from questions about the origins, social range, and different levels of literacy in that culture” (McKenzie 205). With this, McKenzie looks at the indigenous New Zealand population “the Maori” and their colonization by the English to examine the stages of “orality, literacy, and print” (McKenzie 205). Much like the African American women literary societies, the Maori were considered to be “illiterate,” however, rather than locating ways within their culture to achieve literacy, the Maori were instead colonized with a creation of an alphabet and lessons in reading and writing in English. The outcome of their assimilation, or the stage of “print,” resulted in something much different than the black literary societies’ outcome: although the black clubwomen resisted against dominant ideologies to eventually achieve freedom through cultural literacy, the Maori instead embraced assimilation and ended with the “treaty of Waitangi.” The treaty was a document that the community agreed to sign without fully understanding, which displays the issues with a sociology of people who hold ideologies very much different than their own. With this important printed document,“it is impossible to regard the Maori version as complete, although it carries the highest authority, nor the English ones as authoritative, although they are far more explicit” (McKenzie 222).

The outcome of the treaty of Waitangi complicates the perception that dominant ideologies are essential to maintain. Rather, the resistance against dominant cultural values can recondition them to consider how literacy is an embodiment of social ideals and is flexible within varying communities and nations. The socialization within the black community and their printed form of the newspaper for example was used as a tool to think of ways to complicate negative attitudes toward blacks, “the newspaper was designed as a medium of socialization that would disseminate to the black community the standards of behavior that would make this strategy effective” (McHenry 90). The ways in which the treaty of Waitangi was socialized with members of authority was a strategy of assimilation and authority, whereas the Freedom’s Journal was a product of the black “imagined community” and used to gain agency. As established, the cultural authority’s tendency has been to disregard these types of cultural circumstances in the critique of texts and literary forms. Due to this, the focus then turns to the ways that the negative and common links to certain genres can be reconditioned to find positivity in their assumptions.

Future Associations and Reconditioning

In order to rethink the negative associations with certain genres, Darieck Scott claims that a “literary imagination” is needed. Essentially, the ways that cultural authority can be broken down and reconditioned is by looking at cultural restrictions and the ways that it subverts the visibility of marginalized voices. This is a difficult process, and not something that can be easily achieved, however, there are certain strategies that can exercised to work toward this accomplishment, namely “a literary imagination can locate abilities and ‘power’ at the point of the apparent erasure of ego-protections, the point at which the constellation of tropes that we call identity, body, race, nation seem to reveal themselves as utterly penetrated, without defensible boundary” (Scott 96). Like Douglass’ response to the ways that the genre of the slave narrative is perceived and upheld, Scott’s discussion of “literary imagination” requests for the genre to have more imaginative language to be able to imagine conjunctions. This highly complicates the association between reading as entertainment and the “proper” reading that depicted black literacy as illegitimate. By looking at ways that other forms of writing outside of what is considered “proper” writing by elite socio-cultural circles are able to function, the power that preserves the status of a certain group of literary texts can be problematized. Through literary representations in slave narratives, the “subject constructed and represented in narratives of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries is in the slave narrative, in ways more nakedly explicit than in other Western traditions of writing, the exemplar and advocate for a race; the slave narrative thus constructs and represents a race in individual voice” (Scott 97).

As “proper” reading was known to be linked to measurements of literacy, it becomes necessary to complicate this relationship to examine how literacy as a tool enables printed text to be a source of power rather than the content. By returning to Nelson and her discussion of ideologies of literacy, she claims “it is possible that the acquisition of literacy — supported by the belief that literacy is a means to freedom — led to an increased awareness of the possibilities of escape or resistance to slavery, and provided an effective weapon in implementing escape plans” (Nelson 150). Thus the power can be seen to lie in the access to printed materials and texts rather than a specific form of reading or genre. The use of language comes to the forefront to question the value that is given to texts that embody a specific identity. Rather, “we struggle to bring within the ambit of language an experience, a state of human being, that — at least for the moment — is so unable to hold the defenses which constitute the subject who speaks that language in its essence seems an expression of that state and experience’s opposite” (Scott 257). Considering this, if the acquisition of literacy is seen to lead to freedom, then cultural literacy as a form of power within certain communities further exemplifies that connection.

Literacy has been clearly shown to be a link to power. However the ways in which this power can be exercised is dangerous, and can create and maintain oppression within a nation if not challenged. Through an examination of the ways that literacy is related to freedom outside of education and dominant ideologies, the consideration of cultural circumstances and their effects on literary texts are able to challenge oppression. The systems of cultural authority continue to subvert the successes and achievements of cultural literacy within marginalized communities and in order to rethink these systems of power, it is important to utilize the power of language and print. Nonetheless, an exploration of cultural context and circumstance can display the successes of certain “imagined communities” and complicate the hierarchies that have rendered them invisible for decades.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991. Print.

Davidson, Cathy N. Reading in America: Literature & Social History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989. Print.

Foucault, Michel, and Colin Gordon. Power/knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon, 1980. Print.

Flint, Kate. The Woman Reader, 1837-1914. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993. Print

McHenry, Elizabeth. Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies. Durham: Duke UP, 2002. Print.

McKenzie, D. F. Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.

Nelson, Dana D. The Word in Black and White: Reading “race” in American Literature, 1638-1867. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. Print.

Radway, Janice A. A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-class Desire. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 1997. Print.

Scott, Darieck. Extravagant Abjection: Blackness, Power, and Sexuality in the African American Literary Imagination. New York: New York UP, 2010. Print.

Tompkins, Jane. “Masterpiece Theater: The Politics of Hawthorne’s Literary Reputation.” American Quarterly 36.5 (1984): 617-42. JSTOR. Web.

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