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Book Review: Word by Word

By (September 7, 2015) No Comment

Word by Word:word by word

Emancipation and the Act of Writing

by Christopher Hager

Harvard University Press, 2015

Christopher Hager’s Word by Word investigates, as he puts it, “the intellectual history of a group that by most accounts had no intellectual history” – the writings of the few slaves in Civil War America who managed to evade proscriptions and learn to read and write. Hager has consulted and assembled a rich array of such writings, noting the whole time the sliding time-scale of the strange record he’s unveiling:

Just as emancipation denotes a process rather than a discrete moment, the acquisition of literacy unfolds over time, and often slowly. Just as emancipation could entail uncertainty and oppression as well as confer freedom, the act of writing can prove to be, for those new to literacy, as arduous and dispiriting as it is empowering.

Hager’s careful presentation of these eloquent, often halting testaments is woven into his narrative, and that narrative is necessarily full of questions:

The ambiguities and occlusions of texts by marginally literate writers indeed can prove frustrating if one looks to them mainly for direct reportage. When Maria Perkins wrote, “my master had sold albert to a trader onmonday court day and myself and other child is for sale also,” why did she write ‘other child” instead of using the child’s name? Perhaps she intended to use an article or a possessive pronoun to further identify this “other child,” but because she did not we cannot glean potentially valuable evidence about families in slavery. Has Richard Perkins never met this child? Could it be that Albert is the child of Maria and her husband while the “other child” has a different father? Might Perkins refer simply to some other child whom her owner sold, unrelated to any of them?

“The strictures of language and the conventions of the written page could prove unforgiving,” Hager writes, “ – far, far less so than the rule of the slaveholder, but also peculiarly ineluctable.” In Word by Word‘s raw and moving pages, we see brave men and women struggling against both of those strictures, their masters and their own groping with the language. It’s an intensely valuable record, sensitively rendered – a curious benchmark for future American slavery studies.