- Associate Professor
- Trinity College
A Colored Man’s Constitution: Emancipation and the Act of Writing
This project investigates how the acquisition and practice of written literacy influenced African Americans’ transition from slavery to freedom. It analyzes manuscripts by marginally literate slaves and ex-slaves during the era of emancipation (sources that, although known to historians, have not been considered by literature scholars) and reveals how the act of writing shaped freed people’s ideas about freedom and citizenship. The work introduces a largely neglected moment in the history of African American writing and argues that, whereas well-known slave narratives associate literacy with an individualistic conception of freedom, ordinary African Americans’ struggles to write record a collective encounter with cultural and ideological constraints.
Illiterate: An American History
This project is a cultural history of illiteracy—as an experience and a stigma, an object of teaching and of derision—in the United States from English colonization to the present. Although it spans four centuries, “Illiterate” focuses especially on the nineteenth century, the period in which literacy rates increased so dramatically that the word “illiterate” became nearly obsolete as a demographic label. Far from fading away in obsolescence, however, ideas about illiteracy gained new purchase. Social transformations including the destruction of slavery and the rise of universal public schooling destabilized associations of literacy with race, gender, and class, but they also provoked backlashes that continue to shape American cultural politics. This project exposes the ways powerful people in the United States have mobilized ideas about being illiterate to delegitimize figures who threatened their power: the Indian, the African, the immigrant, the worker.