In Brooks' novel March, why do Southerners who support slavery not want slaves to learn how to read and write?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Brooks' novel reflects the Southern reality regarding the education of slaves.  There is little doubt that some of the slaveowners were simply cruel, regarding their slaves as objects or non- humans.  In this light, it would simply make no sense to spend the time or the effort in teaching an object how to read or write.  At the same time, these slaveowners were convinced that slaves were not human.  In teaching them to read and write, there is a human connection present which would undermine many of these slaveowners' construction of how slaves were seen.

However, some Southerners simply lived with the contradiction of seeking benevolence, but denying education.  March experiences this first hand when he speaks with Clement about educating Prudence.  Clement is typical of this Southern contradiction that is rooted in a warped sense of paternalism.  At the outset of their discussion, Clement argues that slavery is meant to keep the African in control, a form of check because of their manner and the traits that he believes is associated with them:

[Slaves were] prone to such vices as 'laziness, deceit, debauchery, [and] theft.”

It is for this reason that Clement viewed his slaves "as children" that needed stern guidance.  Many Southern slaveowners took this view towards their slave children.  Yet, the contradictory element here is that while they were seen as children, when the discussion of educating the slaved, "their children," arose, Southern slaveowners reverted to a position of fear, arguing that teaching slaves to read and write would result in a "violent rebellion" as Clement points out to March.  It is this contradiction that reflects why Southern slaveowners were not comfortable with the idea of teaching slaves to read and write.  Education was seen as a dominion of the powerful, and to bring slaves into this realm would translate into changing the balance of power, something that White Southern slaveowners were not willing to do.

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