Harper’s ‘Learning to Read’ is a fantastic example of her verse and the way in which her poetry highlights the experiences of enslaved individuals in the southern United States during the 19th century. This piece takes a triumph and celebratory tone as the speaker, a sixty year-old woman named Chloe, and those around her, learn to read.
Learning to Read Frances HarperVery soon the Yankee teachers Came down and set up school;But, oh! how the Rebs did hate it,— It was agin’ their rule.Our masters always tried to hide Book learning from our eyes;Knowledge did’nt agree with slavery— ’Twould make us all too wise.But some of us would try to steal A little from the book.And put the words together, And learn by hook or crook.I remember Uncle Caldwell, Who took pot liquor fatAnd greased the pages of his book, And hid it in his hat.And had his master ever seen The leaves upon his head,He’d have thought them greasy papers, But nothing to be read.And there was Mr. Turner’s Ben, Who heard the children spell,And picked the words right up by heart, And learned to read ’em well.Well, the Northern folks kept sending The Yankee teachers down;And they stood right up and helped us, Though Rebs did sneer and frown.And I longed to read my Bible, For precious words it said;But when I begun to learn it, Folks just shook their heads,And said there is no use trying, Oh! Chloe, you’re too late;But as I was rising sixty, I had no time to wait.So I got a pair of glasses, And straight to work I went,And never stopped till I could read The hymns and Testament.Then I got a little cabin A place to call my own—And I felt independent As the queen upon her throne.
Explore Learning to Read
‘Learning to Read’ by Frances Harper tells the story of an individual’s journey to acquire literacy during the time of slavery in the United States.
The arrival of Yankee teachers in the South to set up schools was met with resistance from the Rebs, who feared that education would empower their slaves and challenge the prevailing system of slavery.
The narrative follows Chloe’s determination to read the Bible, despite being discouraged due to her age. In her pursuit of literacy, Chloe’s eventual success not only grants her access to sacred texts but also instills a sense of independence and empowerment, symbolized by her little cabin, where she feels like a queen on her throne.
Structure and Form
‘Learning to Read’ by Frances Harper is a narrative poem that is divided into eleven stanzas, each of which has four lines (known as a quatrain). The poem follows the rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza.
In this poem, the poet makes use of a few different literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly evocative images. For example, “And greased the pages of his book.”
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of stanza one.
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “Rebs” and “rule” in lines three and four.
Stanzas One and Two
Very soon the Yankee teachers
Came down and set up school;
But, oh! how the Rebs did hate it,—
It was agin’ their rule.
Our masters always tried to hide
Book learning from our eyes;
Knowledge did’nt agree with slavery—
’Twould make us all too wise.
The first stanza of the poem sets the historical context. The arrival of Yankee teachers from the Northern states to establish schools in the South is mentioned. This event likely takes place during or after the Civil War when Union forces occupied parts of the Confederate South and sought to educate the formerly enslaved population.
However, the second line, “But, oh! how the Rebs did hate it,” reveals the resistance faced by these teachers from the Southern white population, referred to as the “Rebs” (short for rebels), who vehemently opposed the idea of educating slaves.
The second stanza continues the narrative by describing the efforts of the masters (slave owners) to prevent their slaves from gaining knowledge. The masters understood that education could empower the enslaved population and potentially lead to their questioning of the institution of slavery itself. By keeping them ignorant (hiding the “Book learning from our eyes”), the masters aimed to maintain their control over the enslaved community.
Stanzas Three and Four
But some of us would try to steal
A little from the book.
And put the words together,
And learn by hook or crook.
I remember Uncle Caldwell,
Who took pot liquor fat
And greased the pages of his book,
And hid it in his hat.
In the next stanza, the poet notes that some of “us,” companions of the speaker, would try to “steal / A little from the book.” Meaning, they’d try to steal a little knowledge/information from the books around. The phrase “A little from the book” signifies their thirst for learning, even if they can only access small fragments of information.
The poet also implies that they were willing to do whatever it took to educate themselves.
The fourth stanza introduces Uncle Caldwell. He is described as using pot liquor fat to grease the pages of his book in order to hide it “in his hat.” This allowed him to keep it close to his person and obscure it from anyone who would try to take it from him. Uncle Caldwell’s resourcefulness exemplifies the power of knowledge and the lengths to which some would go to attain it.
Stanzas Five and Six
And had his master ever seen
The leaves upon his head,
He’d have thought them greasy papers,
But nothing to be read.
And there was Mr. Turner’s Ben,
Who heard the children spell,
And picked the words right up by heart,
And learned to read ’em well.
In the fifth stanza, the poet’s speaker describes how Uncle Caldwell was at risk of being discovered by his master. The poet uses the word “leaves” to describe the pages of the book “upon his head.” If the master had seen them, he wouldn’t have thought much of them.
This stanza portrays the contrast between the master’s lack of understanding and the enslaved individual’s quest for knowledge. The speaker’s companions are all willing to take risks in order to get an education.
The poet goes on, writing that Mr. Turner’s Ben learned to spell and read by listening to the “children spell.” This suggests he was listening in while the white children on the property were being educated. The phrase “And picked the words right up by heart” emphasizes Ben’s natural aptitude and ability to memorize the words he overheard.
This stanza further exemplifies the resourcefulness of those who sought knowledge within the constraints of slavery.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
Well, the Northern folks kept sending
The Yankee teachers down;
And they stood right up and helped us,
Though Rebs did sneer and frown.
And I longed to read my Bible,
For precious words it said;
But when I begun to learn it,
Folks just shook their heads,
The poet describes how, despite Southern resistance, the North kept sending “Yankee teachers down” to teach them, and the “Rebs” (or rebels) continued to “sneer and frown” at the prospect of formerly enslaved people being educated. But, the Yankee teachers “stood right up and helped us.” This stanza underscores the pivotal role played by education in the struggle for freedom and equality.
It took determination from the teachers to get to the South and determination from the formerly enslaved people to fight the resistance to get their education.
The next stanza indicates that, slowly, the speaker learned how to read their Bible. This was something that she longed to do. Those around them expressed skepticism and discouragement at the speaker’s attempt to learn the words.
Stanzas Nine and Ten
And said there is no use trying,
Oh! Chloe, you’re too late;
But as I was rising sixty,
I had no time to wait.
So I got a pair of glasses,
And straight to work I went,
And never stopped till I could read
The hymns and Testament.
The ninth stanza finally presents the speaker’s name, Chloe, allowing readers to learn a little more about her. She’s sixty years old and despite her older age, is determined to learn how to read. She has “no time to wait,” she knows, so it’s all the more important for her to get a “pair of glasses” and go straight to work. She didn’t stop trying to read until she “could read / The hymns and Testament.”
This stanza brings a sense of triumph to the poem, highlighting the transformative power of education in providing agency. It’s possible for Chloe to learn to read at sixty, and is therefore more than possible for those around her to learn as well.
Then I got a little cabin
A place to call my own—
And I felt independent
As the queen upon her throne.
The final stanza concludes the poem on another triumphant note. The speaker describes getting a little cabin and living on her own, entirely independent. She finally has control over her own life and is able to pursue her own interests and take care of herself.
By comparing herself to a queen, the speaker evokes a sense of dignity and strength. Chloe’s journey from a suppressed and discouraged individual to a confident and empowered person exemplifies the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity.
The main theme of this moving poem is the transformative power of education and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of oppression.
The tone of the poem is one of defiance and triumph. Throughout, there is a sense of rebellion against the oppressive system of slavery, as enslaved individuals seek to educate themselves in secret.
The purpose of this poem by Harper is to highlight the struggles and challenges faced by enslaved individuals in the United States during the time of slavery.
It’s not entirely clear when exactly this poem was written, but it was likely composed in the mid-19th century during or after the era of slavery in the United States.
Readers who enjoyed this poem might also want to read some other poems by Frances Harper. These include:
- ‘Bury Me in a Free Land’ – depicts the cruel custom of slavery that prevailed in America.
- ‘The Slave Auction’ – portrays the horrors of a slave auction in the United States.
Another related poem is: