On Their Own Terms: Literacy, Slavery, and the Archives of Afro-Brazilian History


ACLS Fellowship Program




This project examines how enslaved and freedpeoples acquired, practiced, and gave meaning to literacy in nineteenth-century Brazil. Despite Brazilian elites’ criminalization of black education and high overall rates of illiteracy, Africans and their descendants engaged in collective reading practices, exchanged letters, wrote amulets, dictated petitions, copied books, and educated others. Their experiences suggest that literacy can also be seen as a continuing social practice applied by the dispossessed to read and bring about change in a society defined by chattel slavery until 1888. At the intersection of the oral and the written, black literacy practices invite us to expand the boundaries of the histories of education, the book, and print culture in the Americas. Afro-Brazilians’ varying relationships to reading and writing conjure up a social history of ideas that is yet to become part of studies about nineteenth-century political thought.