If history has taught us one lesson, it is that knowledge is a powerful tool. Leaders have successfully guided countries into genocide by censoring educational materials. The power of knowledge has also been used in many positive ways, such as catalyzing the progress of the African American Civil Rights movement. This essay uses African American prose to prove that education played an integral role in the struggle for racial equality.
It is a question that remains as powerful a metaphor today as it was when first coined by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton, “Which is mightier, the pen or the sword?” It is a rhetorical quandary that maintains the absolute importance of knowledge and the communication of ideas. By analyzing the powerful themes conveyed in African American prose, it is clear that knowledge and communication were vital for the pursuit of equality.
But what is equality? And how does education empower the oppressed? Let’s consider equality to mean a reality in which every race enjoys the same social, economic and political opportunities and benefits. Education is the acquisition of knowledge. It can come from a person or a written medium. It can even come from observations. When a member of an oppressed race becomes as educated as his oppressors, he earns an opportunity to help his race progress toward social, economic and political equality.
An example of such a person is Frederick Douglass, who learned to communicate his ideas through writing. This compelled a sense of sympathy from Whites, and in Blacks, instilled a sense of community and hope. In his book, My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass discusses the realities of slavery, the logic and reasoning of the slave and the slave master, and how education smashes the walls of inhibition that confine African Americans.
Ernest J. Gaines’ seventh novel, A Lesson Before Dying, illustrates how education can give a person perspective. By understanding one’s self and the illogical world we live in, a person can realize that they have the power to change the world. As the protagonist Jefferson learns, those parts of life which seem unfair and insurmountable can become opportunities. With Grant Wiggins’s guidance, Jefferson learns his own power and communicates this perspective to his peers.
John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers illustrates the opportunities that education gives to the individual. This real-life portrayal details the events that cause his brother Robby to serve life in prison, from the objective scenario that brings about the charges to the mental perspective that drives Robby to commit the crime. Although the author maintains the humanity of his brother, the reader can juxtapose the positions of John and Robby and understand why the path of education is one worth considering.
Using examples from these novels, this essay will prove that education is a powerful tool that helps progress an oppressed race toward equality.
In his book, The Education of Blacks in the South 1860-1935, Professor James D. Anderson examines the historical milestones that catalyzed African American education. He discusses the impacts of political, cultural and economic discrimination, and the progress made by new academic institutions. “If a nation expected to be ignorant and free, it expected the impossible” (Anderson 1).
In the book, Anderson describes how “ex-slaves…persisted in their crusade to develop systems of education compatible with their resistance to racial and class subordination” (Anderson 3). This persistence was the catalyst that led to “black teacher training institutions…black common schools and high schools…and black higher education” (Anderson 3).
The historical context of Anderson’s novel encompasses an era when anti-slavery propaganda had been circulated for some time, and none were as powerful as Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom. First published in 1855, this novel details an ex-slave’s journey toward intellectuality, with a strong focus on the importance of education. Anderson recounts that, because of such texts, “Black parents in general accepted the loss of child labor…so that their children would attend school” (Anderson 150). The mindset that education is essential to promote racial equality was gaining support.