The Issue and History of Illiteracy Among African Americans

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The Issue And History Of Illiteracy Among African Americans

Becca White

Writing 123

Instructor Sydney Darby

27 May 2008

Illiteracy is a growing issue in America. The U.S. Department of Education funded the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) in 1992 that estimates over 90 million Americans fall well below an eight grade literacy level (Rome, 2004, pp. 84). Nowhere is this tragedy more prevalent than among the impoverished African Americans. Illiteracy has always been higher among African Americans now the gap is growing even wider due to a verity of reasons. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy Prison Survey (2003), the number one deterrent to becoming a criminal is having the ability to read past the eighth grade, and the number one preventive for an inmate becoming a repeat offender is to educate in literacy past the eighth grade level. “Today, the definition of literacy is based on what is called functional literacy. That is, someone is literate if they are able to function properly within society,” (Roman, 2004, pp. 81). This definition can cover a variety of skills not only reading and writing but also the skills required to process general information from one’s surroundings (Roman, 2004, pp. 81).

To truly begin to understand the issues surrounding illiteracy among African Americans you have to go back to the beginning. America saw 7.7 million slaves imported from Africa between 1492-1820 more than half the imports of slaves took place from 1700-1800 (Foner, 2006, pp. 112). By the 1830’s laws were in place to make the education of slaves illegal, thus only 10% of slaves were literate (Foner, 2006, pp. 348). At the time slavery ended only about 10% of the African American population could read and do sums - A vitally important ability in a Jim Crow society. Jim Crowism came to embody the laws, customs, and policies of segregation (Foner, 2006, pp. 310), but more importantly the post civil war ‘separate but not equal’ mentality. The phrase from Brent Staples (2006) article, ‘Why Slave-Era Barriers to Black Literacy Still Matter,’ caught my attention as he wrote, “literacy was a form of social capital that could be passed from one generation to the next.” While post Civil War America moved toward the 1880’s laws were passed in the South making it legal to arrest any unemployed African American and the penalties for petty crimes were vastly increased the punishment all were sentenced to labor camps (Foner, 2006, pp. 557). Labor camps it appears were created for forced labor pools; this is also the first large influx of African Americans into the penal system.

African Americans were barred from Unions, participation in Democracy, and from skilled employment. Further more men and women were desperately poor and unaffected by the laws regulating hours and conditions that labor was under (Foner, 2006, pp. 645). On the eve of World War I, 90% of African Americans still lived in the South, barred from all but the most menial, unskilled, labor and paid the lowest wages. Many African American women had to work outside the home in order to help the family survive (Foner, 2006, pp. 650). During WWI mass migration of more than 1 million African Americans took place out of the South and into the Northern ghettos of New York, Detroit, Chicago, Buffalo, and Trenton (Foner, 2006, pp. 685). Industrialization, thousands of jobs had opened in the North and many African Americans were looking for a chance at living wages, for their children to go to school, and escape the constant fear of lynching (Foner, 2006, pp. 685). The last to enter the workforce of the industrialized jobs they were the first to lose them as the economy slumped. Now instead of being confined in the deep Southern countryside the impoverished African Americans were in ghettos across America’s industrialized cities.

The 1980’s witnessed the deindustrialization of Northern cities...
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