Literacy and Liberation: A Content Analysis of Four Antebellum Slave Narratives as Sites of Critical Literacy

Thumbnail Image



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



This dissertation examines the roles of literacy and literacy education in early 19th-century autobiographies of four fugitive African American slaves: Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Henry Bibb, and Harriet Jacobs. Also known as antebellum slave narratives, these autobiographies regularly depicted the dehumanization many African Americans endured in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. As such, slave narratives provide critical information about the origins and development of racism in the United States. These stories illustrate how race in the early 19th century became a significant marker of one’s humanity and how people of African descent were perceived as slightly less than human and thus deemed suitable for subjugation. I argue that literacy and literacy education enabled these authors (and by extension, millions of other African Americans) to establish their humanity through their engagement with the debates and conversations about the institution of slavery. Antebellum slave narratives were part of global abolitionist efforts to end slavery immediately. These narratives countered proslavery arguments about the naturalness and logic of slavery and were often the end results of fugitive slaves having given oral accounts of their lives on lecture tours. In short, literacy and literacy instruction enabled Douglass, Brown, Bibb, and Jacobs, as critical literacy theorist Paulo Freire argued, to become more fully human. That is, literacy and literacy instruction enabled the authors to fight oppression and establish agency in a world that frequently denied them their humanity and human agency.

Using content analysis as the method of data collection and analysis, I coded textual data according to 12 categories James Olney (1985) argued were common themes in the narratives. After reducing redundant data, I concluded that the contextual phenomena that best described the data were critical literacy, material conditions, and human rights. Douglass, Brown, Bibb, and Jacobs used literacy and literacy education to engage in the national debates and conversations for the immediate and unconditional end of slavery in the United States. The main implication of this conclusion is that literacy and literacy instruction are pivotal to developing crucial citizenship attitudes and skills that will maintain a healthy democracy.



critical literacy, antebellum slave narratives, African American history