Black, white, & read all over: race and literacy in America

Black, white, & read all over: race and literacy in America



For centuries, Western Europe and its Diaspora have extolled the virtues of “civilization”, the set of attitudes, behaviors, and institutions that has propelled it to dominate much of the planet. This sustained dominance contributed to the mistaken belief that there was something inherently “civilized” about whiteness, and that nonwhites were somehow less intelligent or otherwise inferior. This paper will examine certain attitudes and behaviors typically attributed to “racial” communities, not as innate characteristics, but as the cumulative effects of communications technologies on oral and literate societies, respectively. What is “whiteness”, and under what conditions does it occur? Is American blackness independent of whiteness, or are the two dialectically related?

I chose this topic because I am fascinated with the ways that technologies shape human behaviors and attitudes. In particular, the development of writing technologies has had an enormous impact on those societies which adopted them, with reverberations that have touched every populated area on the planet. I think many of the characteristics traditionally thought of as “white” or “civilized” are actually the characteristics of societies whose primary medium has been the written word. That these characteristics were racialized in antebellum America (and in Western Europe as well) only served to blur the attempt by whites to maintain power by drawing distinctions between themselves and other peoples. Much of the schism between “blackness” and “whiteness” in America can, I think, be attributed to a tradition of literary chauvinism by white elites which devalued (and sought to eliminate) the worldviews of oral cultures like those of the Native Americans and the African Diaspora.

The oral tradition in a literate world

America is the most hyper-literate nation in world history. Though the hegemony of the printed word has been under increasing assault by electric technologies for just over 150 years now (McLuhan 1964; 252), the first century of the United States was marked by a degree of literacy never before seen, at least among the adult white males who made up its official body politic (Postman 1992; 44).

In New England, adult male literacy was virtually universal by 1790, the highest proportion in the nation (Schudson 1978; 38). Schudson notes that this has been attributed to the supposed Protestant emphasis on education, but in any event literacy was on the rise across early America. Between 1800 and 1840, white literacy in the South went from approximately half to 81 percent (Richman 1994; 38). These conditions paved the way for an explosion in the so-called “penny press” newspapers, which were cheap, sensationalistic, and enormously popular, mostly in urban areas, where much of America’s growth was taking place. By 1835 the three largest penny papers in New York City alone had a combined daily circulation of 44, 000 (Schudson 1978; 18).

Meanwhile, in the Antebellum South, where one third of the population was held in bondage, it was forbidden by law to teach slaves to read (Roucek). Why? Clearly, there is a connection between America’s institutionalized racism and the enforced illiteracy of African-American slaves. Certainly there are practical reasons why a plantation owner might not want his slaves reading or writing. Literacy is a powerful tool for transmitting and storing information (Diamond 1999; 215), one which could easily upset the power dynamic of a slave plantation. The gap between literate whites and large numbers of illiterate blacks remained a problematic power dynamic long past the Civil War, and was used by elites to keep blacks from voting in the segregated South; similarly, a literacy rate of less than 10 percent of black South Africans persisted well into the 1960s, and was undoubtedly a factor in that country’s parallel apartheid politics (Roucek).  But while the raw utility of the written word is certainly a factor in institutionalized racism, and in attaining political power, there is a deeper connection, one that lies between the hidden effects of literacy and white conceptions of themselves.

The written word has existed in many forms in the last 6,000 years, but the full history of written communications media is beyond the scope of this paper. Phonetic literacy, which originated around 3,500 years ago as a vowel-free abjad in the Middle East (Goody and Watt 1963:316), made it possible to translate semantically meaningless symbols into semantically meaningless sounds (McLuhan 1964; 83). This extreme level of abstraction constitutes a separation between thought and action, one whose ideological implications have been attributed to the rise of many of the hallmarks of ‘civilization’, including individualism, scientific objectivity, linear thought (Postman 1992; 51, 124) and, according to Benedict Anderson, the abstract sense of community that characterizes modern nationalism (Wilson). It also amplifies the role of vision, pushing other senses aside with a strong visual bias (McLuhan 1964; 201). With the rise of the printing press in Western Europe, mass literacy became possible, spreading both information and the implied effects of the medium, and transforming European communities from oral societies to the literate ones that conquered the planet (Diamond 1999; 241).

Since white people, wherever they may be, are descended from these Europeans, we may compare the effects of literacy to the racial traits they later attributed to their success. What traits are characteristically thought of as “white”? David Shipler describes a list of stereotypes (both negative and positive) of white Americans: “assertive, cold, dishonest, evil, greedy, lacking athleticism, lacking rhythm…” Many of these, upon closer examination, correspond roughly with the common traits of highly literate populations. “Assertive” could easily be described as an inflated sense of individualism. “Cold” is a commonly-used term for emotional detachment, another literate trait. “Greed”, while not an exclusive trait of Caucasians, is perhaps well-suited to the mindset that produced Anderson’s “print-capitalism” (Wilson), which replaces all intrinsic values with detached cost-benefit analysis. Assertions that whites lack rhythm and athleticism correspond with the “aloof and dissociated” split between mind and body (McLuhan 1964; 4).

But the racial identity of white American contained another element, one which needed African-Americans to be complete: “…the very conception of whiteness entails the exclusion of blackness (Mullen).” The “ocular centrism” of the literate West, which, as Mark Smith notes, assigns lower status to the other senses, meant that the holistic sensory involvement of nonliterate societies was denigrated as ‘primitive’ or ‘inferior’ (Smith 2006; 3). Zora Neale Hurston described the black approach to language in 1934, barely two generations removed from 350 years of enforced illiteracy in a hyper-literate nation, even as an explosion of literate African Americans like Hurston were sparking the Harlem Renaissance:

“The primitive man exchanges descriptive words. His terms are all close-fitting. Frequently the Negro, even with the detached words in his vocabulary – not evolved in him but planted on his tongue by contact – must add action to it to make it do. So we have “chop-axe”, “sitting-chair”, “cook-pot” and the like because the speaker has in his mind the picture of the object in use. Action. Everything illustrated. So we can say that the white man thinks in a written language and the Negro thinks in hieroglyphics…”His very words are action words…Every phase of Negro life is highly dramatized.”

Hurston is describing the mindset of oral cultures, for whom communication is a holistic experience involving all the senses. Objects in speech are associated with action and real-life function, a far cry from the literate man, for whom the disconnect between thought and action leaves him cold indeed. Compare Hurston’s comments with those of McLuhan, discussing “tribal man”:

“Civilization is built on literacy because literacy is a uniform processing of a culture by a visual sense extended in space and time by the alphabet. In tribal cultures, experience is arranged by an auditory sense-life that represses visual values. The auditory sense, unlike the cool and neutral eye, is hyper-esthetic and delicate and all-inclusive. Oral cultures act and react at the same time. Phonetic culture endows men with the means of repressing their feelings and emotions when engaged in action. To act without reacting, without involvement, is the peculiar advantage of western literary man.” (McLuhan 1964; 86).

African slaves, products of millennia of oral tradition, were brought directly to America’s literate maelstrom. Prohibited from learning the ‘standard’ English through print, and systematically deprived of familial and tribal ties, they developed pidgin dialects of Black English. These were often held up by white elites as proof of black mental inferiority, and literature written by white writers in regional black dialects (often as a mocking sort of minstrel show in print) became wildly popular in the late 19th century. The best-known example may be Huckleberry Finn (1884), but suffice it to say it was a way of identifying a character racially by their oral speech patterns (Strausbaugh 2006; 154-155).

In this way the negative qualities of blackness were made ‘real’ by being put into print. They were made ‘objective’ and solidified in a way that allowed whites to poke fun at African Americans’ speech without ever hearing one speak. By writing out an oral dialect, translating it to the disconnected visual biases of print, one exposed the variation from standard ‘correct’ English spoken by literate elites. It also divorced the dialect from the physical qualities and sonic character and cadence of black speech. I could read Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech aloud myself or print it in a newspaper, for example, but it would not have the resonance and emotional impact of one of the 20th century’s finest orators, combining the accessibility of standard English with the rich cadences of an unmistakably black dialect.

In any event, the decontextualized tribal characteristics of African slaves were amplified in the eyes of white elites. All those ‘primitive’ qualities devalued by the literate world were attributed to the slave population as whites grew increasingly desperate to appear distinct from their slaves, who were becoming lighter-skinned with each passing year (Smith 2006; 7). Mark Smith, in How Race is Made: Race, Slavery, Segregation and the Senses, has noted the increasing passion with which Southern whites attributed non-visual racial markers to black identity, using other senses than vision as vision became unreliable. A cursory look at some of the negative stereotypes typically attributed to African Americans shows that they tend to be just the opposite of the effects of literacy:

“Blacks are lazy, smelly, wild dressers, oversexed, have low morals and oversized genitalia…” (Mullen). Whether or not these traits applied to any particular individual was irrelevant. The qualities of literate civilization were the ‘objective’ standard, and therefore their absence would be the epitome of negative qualities. Laziness is generally assumed to signify a lack of self-discipline, contrasting with the stereotype of the hard-working Puritan uber-literate culture of colonial America. “Smelly” is of course a reference to the nose, perhaps the most maligned sense in the literate world (Smith 2006; 12). In the hyper-visual world of literacy, olfactory input is to be eliminated if possible. “Wild dressers”, “oversexed”, and “oversized genitalia” imply not only a shocking disregard for Victorian prudishness but also a tactile sensibility that is similarly taboo (Smith 2006; 24) in the literate world. The editors of Ebony magazine decried the elevation of black athletes over black intellectuals in the public eye, recognizing that the perceived physicality of African Americans fit into a dominant narrative that refuses to see them as capable of literary attributes reserved for whites (Ebony List). “Low morals” indicate a lack of rigid adherence to the literate codes of morality, which are, of course, written codes.



The concept of race is a powerful one in America, a myth more persistent than Santa Claus, Paul Bunyan, or the American Dream. If we are shaped by our conditions and the cultural milieu in which we are raised, then it is worth examining the technological conditions of our society. The tools we use to shape society also shape us, setting parameters of thought and behavior that are difficult to perceive without a broader perspective.

While I realize that racial politics are the product of far more complex factors than the somewhat fuzzy binary between literate and oral societies, how we transmit our ideas has an effect on the nature of those ideas, one whose ideological implications often go unnoticed in contemporary studies. Literacy remains a powerful tool in the arsenal of liberation. While it has typically been employed to serve the interests of power, it can just as easily be used to fight that same power.



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New York, W.W. Norton & Co. 1999


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The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education © 1997 CH II Publishers


Strausbaugh, John. Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular CultureLondon, Penguin Books 2006


Hurston, Zora Neale. “Characteristics of Negro Expression.” From Negro: an Anthology (ed. Nancy Cunard.) London: Wishart 1934

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