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Literacy A Distinction and a Danger A large proportion of the Muslims arrived in the New World already literate, reading and writing Arabic and their own languages transcribed in the Arabic alphabet. As other Africans came from exclusively oral cultures, and as learning to read and write was either illegal or actively discouraged for all slaves in the Americas, literacy became one of the most distinguishing marks of the Muslims. The Muslims’ literacy clearly set them apart from the rest of the slaves and became as distinctive as a physical trait. A slaveholder was so impressed with his literate slave, for example, that he mentioned only this characteristic when he put a notice in the Charleston Courier of February 7, 1805, to advertise him as a fugitive. Thirty-year-old Sambo was a “new negro” who had absconded with another African and a nativeborn woman. He was, reported the owner, a man “of grave countenance who writes the Arabic language.”1 It would be interesting to know how the slaveholder came to learn about his new slave’s literacy, as well as what, and under which circumstances, Sambo—a common name among Hausa—had been writing. Illiteracy among men and women was not restricted to the slave quarters . Many male colonists and most women could neither read nor write, because literacy in European cultures was reserved for the wealthy males. The furthest some societies went was to allow the poor and women to read for religious reasons—so that the Bible could be accessible—but not to write. As a result, a large number of American colonists who came from what were considered the lower European classes were illiterate or barely literate. In the colonies themselves, education was reserved for the privileged few; the movement toward mass literacy started only in the nineteenth century. Prior to that, in Brazil for instance, “the simplest rudiments were so little diffused that not infrequently wealthy ranchers of the interior would charge their friends of the seaboard to secure for 4 107 them a son-in-law who, in place of any other dower, should be able to read and write.”2 Because the literacy rate was high in Muslim Africa, and because of a concentration of learned Muslims in America, as discussed in chapter 1, the literacy rate among Muslim slaves was in all probability higher than it was among slaveholders. As Gilberto Freyre, the Brazilian scholar, remarked , “in the slaves’ sheds of Bahia in 1835, there were perhaps more persons who knew how to read and write than up above, in the Big Houses.”3 This situation was sometimes used to the advantage of the owners, who relied on their slaves’ skills. Such was the case with Abu Bakr al Siddiq ’s owner in Jamaica, who had him keep his property’s records in Arabic . But the disparity in education of master and slave also created animosity . To some illiterate or barely literate masters, having slaves who could read and write was vexing. In that regard, Theodore Dwight, the secretary of the American Ethnological Society, observed that several other Africans have been known at different periods, in different parts of America, somewhat resembling Job-ben-Solomon in acquirements [e.g., of literacy and education]; but, unfortunately, no full account of any of them has ever been published. The writer has made many efforts to remedy this defect, and has obtained some information from a few individuals. But there are insuperable difficulties in the way in slave countries, arising from the jealousy of masters, and other causes.4 Further, Dwight mentioned that writer and ethnologist William Hodgson , who had resided in North Africa, tried to make inquiries about the literate Muslims in the American South but had to abandon the undertaking “in despair,” due to the hostility of their masters. The hostility toward the literate Africans that many slaveholders expressed did not arise from the fear that their property would somehow trick them by forging passes or getting access to useful news. Even though Brazilian slaveholders discovered that the Africans’ literacy in Arabic could indeed be hazardous to their safety, the animosity described by Dwight had another origin. In the eyes of the slaveholders, the Muslims ’ literacy was dangerous because it represented a threat to the whites’ intellectual domination and a refutation of the widely held belief that Africans were inherently inferior and incapable of intellectual pursuits. The Africans’ skills constituted a proof of humanity and civilization that did not owe anything...


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