Marked Literacy

“For literacy, as I hope to demonstrate, is the emblem that links racial alienation with economic alienation” (Gates, 6).

While reading the article”Writing ‘Race’ and the Difference It Makes” by Henry Louis Gates Jr., I found myself captivated by this sentence. I had never thought of literacy as a tool of oppression. However, I found myself agreeing with Gates’ analysis of how Western colonization and it’s influence on literary infrastructures and practices (even those exposed to these practices) perpetuated oppressive societal norms towards African-American’s. Not only this, but when Black writers did start emerging into the literary sphere, they were pushing against a societal ideology that essentially stripped African-American’s of their humanity. Gates states that “Blacks were ‘reasonable,’ and hence ‘men,’ if –and only if–they demonstrated mastery of ‘the arts and sciences,’ the eighteenth century’s formula for writing. So, while the Enlightenment is characterized by its foundation on man’s ability to reason, it simultaneously used the absences and presence of reason to delimit and circumscribe the very humanity of the cultures and people of color which Europeans had been ‘discovering’ since the Renaissance” (8).  Literacy had become a tool to determine who held the ability to ‘reason’, and thus could be considered a human being.

As I continue to work through these articles each week, I find myself appreciating more and more the idea that we can not focus on literacy as just the ability to “read and write”, as this definition excludes so many important external factors (such as cultural, socioeconomic, religious, etc.) that play into our everyday literary practices. I have also found myself thinking about how we still use literacy within social hierarchies, power structures, class systems, and essentially to determine who “know’s” more. Will we ever be able to move past this idea that “if you can’t ‘read and write’ you can’t excel in life”? Is literacy the true culprit of the ever growing economic gap? How do we, as future educators, create new literary infrastructures that both inform our students of the past, but also prepares them for the future?

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