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.