Rhea Estelle Lathan
Urbana: CCCC/NCTE Studies in Writing and Rhetoric (SWR) series, 2015. 143 pp.
Freedom Writing: African American Civil Rights Literacy Activism by Rhea Estelle Lathan rests on the intersections of the African American rhetorical tradition and community literacy. This project introduces the term "gospel literacy" to illustrate the complex and innovative literacy practices of the Sea Island Citizenship School teachers and participants from the Civil Rights era. Activism is also in the forefront of the discussion, as the histories and narratives of the Citizenship School suggest a literacy practice that moves beyond reading and writing skills and into discussions of critical consciousness and civic freedom. Lathan is explicit in naming literacy within a social constructivist paradigm, and aligns her work with that of social historians who attempt to examine the ideological and functional relationships between literacy and broader political ideals (xxiii). Freedom Writing is a moment of recovery as Lathan urges readers to follow her on an exploration of the Citizenship School for an innovative perspective on literacy, of which will come a revised vocabulary for discussing the literacy histories of marginalized groups (xiii).
Chapter one begins the act of recovery by first tracing the histories of her main term "gospel literacy." Lathan starts with a brief history of gospel, tracing the term back to Thomas Dorsey in 1932 who coined it as a music genre. Gospel music extended beyond Negro spirituals because of its inclusion of secular rhythms with spiritual lyrics, while Negro spirituals were primarily in a European musical style pushed onto African American people. They also differed in that spirituals "rested on a fantasy of hoping for a better life in the hereafter, but gospel held tight to the promise of a better life right now" (1).
Lathan then moves into a working definition of gospel literacy, starting first by naming and explaining four fundamental components of gospel consciousness: call-and [End Page 98] response, acknowledging the burden, bearing witness, and finding redemption. "Call-and-response" might be thought of as an expression of both ritualized communal unity and a spontaneous expression of individual freedom (9). It is a way of knowing, and it makes literacy participatory and not something to be observed from afar (10). "Acknowledging the burden" relies on the conviction that history and power are synonymous. Understanding this component as foundational to gospel literacy is essential as it represents a moving past suffering and despair through demonstrating how history changes when people take authority over their literacy practices (18). The meaning of "bearing witness" draws from Geneva Smitherman's definition of testifying, as Lathan quotes Smitherman's description as "a ritualized form of black communication in which the speaker gives verbal witness to the efficacy, truth and power of some experience in which all blacks have shared" (18). Lathan hails bearing witness as foundational to gospel literacy, since her goal is to seek a definition of literacy that exists at the intersections of the individual and the community. Bearing witness accomplishes this by communicating life-giving or life-changing experiences and relating them to larger social systems.
The fourth component, finding redemption, illustrates the importance of recovery in Lathan's project. Drawing on Zora Neale Hurston, Lathan claims that the concepts of understanding and interpreting histories provide moments to consider theoretical intellectualisms that intersect with African American cultural norms (23). Finding redemption is then pivotal to the project, as it demonstrates, "a means of explaining how deep cultural resources that develop in the church and spiritual life transfer to a secular context as intellectual and spiritual strategies that enhance literacy activism," all of which, in this instance, might be done through a recovery of the Citizenship School narrative (24). The strength in chapter one lies in Lathan's framing of gospel literacy, but it isn't until the subsequent chapters that readers witness the complexity of the frame when told through the Citizenship School narrative.
Chapter two begins the exploration of gospel literacy as seen in the Citizenship School narrative through the gospel component of acknowledging the burden. The burden in this instance had to do...