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Word by Word

Word by Word

Emancipation and the Act of Writing

Christopher Hager

ISBN 9780674088061

Publication date: 09/07/2015

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One of the cruelest abuses of slavery in America was that slaves were forbidden to read and write. Consigned to illiteracy, they left no records of their thoughts and feelings apart from the few exceptional narratives of Frederick Douglass and others who escaped to the North—or so we have long believed. But as Christopher Hager reveals, a few enslaved African Americans managed to become literate in spite of all prohibitions, and during the halting years of emancipation thousands more seized the chance to learn. The letters and diaries of these novice writers, unpolished and hesitant yet rich with voice, show ordinary black men and women across the South using pen and paper to make sense of their experiences.

Through an unprecedented gathering of these forgotten writings—from letters by individuals sold away from their families, to petitions from freedmen in the army to their new leaders, to a New Orleans man’s transcription of the Constitution—Word by Word rewrites the history of emancipation. The idiosyncrasies of these untutored authors, Hager argues, reveal the enormous difficulty of straddling the border between slave and free.

These unusual texts, composed by people with a unique perspective on the written word, force us to rethink the relationship between literacy and freedom. For African Americans at the end of slavery, learning to write could be liberating and empowering, but putting their hard-won skill to use often proved arduous and daunting—a portent of the tenuousness of the freedom to come.


  • Through a series of bold, imaginative and insightful case studies, Christopher Hager uncovers the intellectual world of U.S. slavery and charts the hopes, expectations and fears of enslaved writers… By understanding emancipation as a slow process rather than a rapid transformation, Word by Word shows how literacy was an incomplete and sometimes flawed instrument of black self-determination. The idea of emancipation as an unfinished revolution is not new, nor is the attention to subterranean networks of enslaved information and exchange particularly novel in slavery studies. By rendering legible and audible the writings of the literate minority, however, Hager reveals the desperate and creative measures taken by former slaves to assert their communal and individual voices. Most of course continued unlettered, but the striking improvement in black literacy during the two decades after emancipation (from 10 to 30 per cent) is testimony to the enduring importance attached to the written word and the empowering potential of African-American writing.

    —Richard Follett, Times Higher Education


  • 2014, Winner of the Frederick Douglass Book Prize


  • Christopher Hager is Charles A. Dana Research Associate Professor of English at Trinity College.

Book Details

  • 328 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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