"Seldom in history have any people faced tasks so formidable and challenging as those which four million southern blacks confronted in the aftermath of the Civil War ... If the ex-slaves were to succeed, they would have to depend largely on their own resources."
– Leon F. Litwack, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Been In The Storm So Long
In the immediate decades following the Civil War, as Reconstruction and the promise of equal rights dissolved into disillusionment, the persecution of African Americans in a supposed free society grew malevolent and extreme. Literacy and education became a new kind of weapon in a new warfare: defensive bulwarks to resist the rising tide of racism.
For ex-slaves, literacy was the new underground railroad, the key to navigating a hostile, post-Civil War world. Illiterate, an ex-slave would be circumscribed to a life with limits, precisely the life that many Jim Crow southerners designed: separate and unequal. What ensued was a long, bitter struggle for intellectual equality, a battle fought by individuals and communities whose self-reliance was founded on the crucible of perseverance yet whose indomitable spirit continued to sustain perpetual assault.
This dark period in our nation’s history, between emancipation and the decades leading up to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960‘s, remain a bilious backwater in our collective past. The story told in Liberty’s memoir takes place during this lapse in our nation’s social conscience. The life of Liberty Adams reveals a remarkable trail along actual events in history that demonstrate how the critical function of literacy and rights-to-opinion both enabled and exacerbated equality, inviting opportunity and persecution. This narrative is not a polemic about slavery, nor yet another story about the Civil War, but rather a recollection, from a time largely forgotten, spoken through the life of one man, whose love of learning and decades of struggle embodied the battle for intellectual parity, a battleground where Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, even Melville, Milton, and Homer become able mentors along a hazardous path.
Because this story is told through the life of (what some will suggest is) an improbable character -a self-educated slave whose ascension in a white-dominated world was battled primarily through literate means- I must invoke the words of Ralph Ellison whose masterpiece The Invisible Man provoked me when I first read it several years ago. In the introduction, Ellison questioned why ‘most protagonists of Afro-American fiction (not to mention the black characters in fiction written by whites) were without intellectual depth’, he continues:
'Too often they were figures caught up in the most intense forms of social struggle, subject to the most extreme forms of the human predicament but yet seldom able to articulate the issues which tortured them. Not that many worthy individuals aren’t in fact inarticulate, but that there were, and are, enough exceptions in real life to provide the perceptive novelist with models. And even if they did not exist it would be necessary, both in the interest of fictional expressiveness and as examples of human possibility, to invent them.'
When one considers the indomitable yearning for freedom deep-rooted within the human spirit, the portrayal of a self-educated ex-slave like Liberty Adams is not beyond the bounds of believability; the possibility of his existence shatters our shallow stereotypes. Liberty’s life is, in fact, an impressionistic composite, one distinct diamond reflecting the facets of many lives, African American heroes such as the famed cowboy Nat Love (1854-1921), lions-of-letters and equal rights apologists such as Frances Harper (1825-1911), Ida B. Wells (1864-1931), and the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906).
In her book Self-Taught (African American Education in Slavery and Freedom), Heather Andrea Williams wrote, ‘African Americans invested great faith in the ability of literacy first to enable them to escape from slavery, and then to make freedom meaningful in the emancipation period.’ A longing more profound than we can imagine stirred even the most timorous of freedman to risk a life toward fully recognized citizenship, an equality that the broken, yet unrepentant Republic had once promised but repeatedly denied. Liberty’s journey incarnates what the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa stated was ‘the fascination with human beings to do away with limits, who, instead of bowing to the servitude of what is possible, endeavor, against all logic, to seek the impossible’. It is also a quest for identity, what Ralph Ellison calls the American theme, ‘the nature of our society is such that we are prevented from knowing who we are.’
Though the end of the Civil War might have meant the abolition of physical slavery for millions, it was but the beginning of a long crusade for true and total independence: emancipation of the soul and mind.