How does Frances E. W. Harper's poem "Learning to Read" represent women's quest for knowledge?

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The speaker of "Learning to Read" is an almost-sixty-year-old woman who has been denied the opportunity to read, since she grew up as a slave. She recalls that slaves' "masters always tried to hide / Book learning from or eyes" because knowledge "did'nt agree" with the tenets of slavery. Thus, she innately understands the value in literacy and, with some other former slaves, becomes determined to teach herself to read. Her primary goal is to read her Bible, and when people try to discourage her because of her age, she doesn't give up. In fact, she presses forward in resolute determination until she can read both the New Testament and hymns. This requires getting glasses and working hard at this new skill.

Once she can read, she is afforded a new lifestyle: a cabin to call her own. As a woman who is now literate, she is better able to navigate her world and achieve her own dreams. She does all this without the help of men. Likely all of the teachers whom the "Yankees" sent down during this time period were women, and she does not lean into a man's presence for her security once she is literate. Instead, she notes that she is "independent / As the queen upon her throne." She achieves these goals for herself because she is dedicated to an achievement of knowledge through literacy.

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Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911) was an African-American poet and writer born to free parents in Baltimore. She later worked as an abolitionist and wrote for anti-slavery newspapers, and she also helped slaves to escape along the Underground Railroad.

Her poem "Learning to Read" describes how masters in the south would try to prevent slaves from learning to read. She writes, "Knowledge didn't agree with slavery— ’Twould make us all too wise" (lines 7-8). In other words, slave masters felt that reading would make slaves unfit for slavery because they would be able to question their masters.

Her poem is about slaves who are so desperate to learn to read that they hide pages in their hat, greased with fat, or they learn to read by hearing children, presumably white children, and memorize words by hearing them. In her poem, Yankees send teachers to the south to teach former slaves to read, but people tell the narrator of the poem, Chloe, that she's too old to learn to read. However, Chloe represents women's quest for knowledge because she desperately wants to read the Bible. Chloe, though she is 60, works at reading. She says, "So I got a pair of glasses, And straight to work I went, And never stopped till I could read The hymns and Testament" (lines 37-40). Even though Chloe is older and has poor vision, she works at reading until she can read the hymns and the Bible. She also gets her own cabin and feels like a queen, as she has two major rights that were denied to her in slavery--her own property and the ability to read. She deems reading a privilege and something that makes her feel queenly. 

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