Poem #12: Learning to Read by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Estimated Reading Time:  4.5 minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

TitleLearning to Read

Author: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Source:  African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.


Very soon the Yankee teachers
   Came down and set up school;
But, oh! how the Rebs did hate it,—
   It was agin’ their rule.

Our masters always tried to hide
   Book learning from our eyes;
Knowledge did’nt agree with slavery—
   ’Twould make us all too wise.

But some of us would try to steal
   A little from the book.
And put the words together,
   And learn by hook or crook.

I remember Uncle Caldwell,
   Who took pot liquor fat
And greased the pages of his book,
   And hid it in his hat.

And had his master ever seen
   The leaves upon his head,
He’d have thought them greasy papers,
   But nothing to be read.

And there was Mr. Turner’s Ben,
   Who heard the children spell,
And picked the words right up by heart,
   And learned to read ’em well.

Well, the Northern folks kept sending
   The Yankee teachers down;
And they stood right up and helped us,
   Though Rebs did sneer and frown.

And I longed to read my Bible,
   For precious words it said;
But when I begun to learn it,
   Folks just shook their heads,

And said there is no use trying,
   Oh! Chloe, you’re too late;
But as I was rising sixty,
   I had no time to wait.

So I got a pair of glasses,
   And straight to work I went,
And never stopped till I could read
   The hymns and Testament.

Then I got a little cabin
   A place to call my own—
And I felt independent
   As the queen upon her throne.

Literacy has long been held as a tool for emancipation by many people in the history of civilizations but probably never as powerfully as it has in the US in the context of slavery and Black people fighting for equality and fairness.  Harper's poem captures this struggle both in highlighting the ways in which Black people were forbidden, but more importantly, how they were creative and found ways to resist the limitations forced upon them by white American culture. 

The poem captures the challenge but much more so, upholds the joy in fighting to read and readings.  There's the playful mocking of Southern whites ("Rebs") who are angry that Yankees are coming to do a thing that the white American culture had worked so hard to prevent. 

Harper's second stanza sets up some interesting propositions.  She's upholding the importance of reading but also I think very slyly teasing it as well. We have "book learning", "knowledge' and "too wise".  Notice that she says "too wise"--the implication is that they are already wise and that with knowledge and book learning, they might go beyond their inherent wisdom.  This point feels poignant as she takes the next four stanzas to illustrate that Black people already knew the value of learning to read; they were already wise and resourceful in hiding their knowledge from white people, quite effectively.  This point runs further when Chloe returns to the Northerners to say they "helped us". As a term, "helped" hints more as being equals than being taught.  

It's interesting here that while teachers are mentioned twice within this poem, nowhere do they actually "teach."  Rather, Chloe learns to read. It's a distinction worth nothing because Harper makes it clear that Black people were trying to learn to read well before any teachers arrived.  

Finally, there's also Chloe's tale to consider. She learned to read at sixty; read the Bible, and has appeared to achieve a sense of independence that had escaped her for much of her life. I know my life is fundamentally different from Chloe's and yet, I can't but help to think of how the ability to read has been transformational. It makes me wonder how many other people can speak to reading that way and how many of them come from a place of already being wise but having reading as a tool that leads to one's sense of freedom. 

Those are my thoughts.  How do you interpret the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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