Both Gere and McHenry/Heath focus on common misconceptions about literacy and write about similar beliefs and themes in terms of literacy outside of the classroom. McHenry/Heath’s essay focused on the notion that there was a lack of literacy skills among African Americans, mainly between the years 1830-1940. Despite all that African Americans have accomplished in terms of literacy, the presence of their knowledge and creativity has gone unnoticed and the main focus of most reports has been solely based on the oral tradition of the African American culture. The notion of African Americans as an “oral” people derived mostly from the use of sermons, which center on performance. The belief was that texts were simply repeated and adapted throughout the sermon. However, sermons ultimately focus on actual material and written texts, such as the Bible, and at times, notes and outlines from the preachers themselves. Thus, reading and writing is a needed skill in the presentation of sermons. Spiritual narratives were also considered “oral” representations, but narratives are, essentially, personal accounts whose content and style are also derived from the Bible and other spiritual and political texts, which are then turned into performances.
McHenry/Heath also asserts that since the 1960’s, it was more popular to illustrate poverty among blacks than to acknowledge the contributions of the middle and upper-class who made significant efforts to read and write, and to inspire others to do the same. These individuals, McHenry/Heath contest, made an effort to get their works read in order to send messages to society illustrating the lives of their culture and hardships. From 1830 through the Harlem Renaissance the most popular way to have their voice heard was to form reading and writing groups, which consisted of the elite middle and upper classes throughout America, including doctors, politicians, landowners, etc., and also groups including women, all being very affluent in literacy, music, and education. These groups would gather together and discuss works written by each other and other African Americans which focused on African American life, hardships, and issues addressed by the community. These clubs and societies also kept diaries, notes on meetings and wrote lectures for coming events. To a large group of African Americans, literacy groups provided a sense of freedom and they strove to become literate, believing that writing aided in self-improvement and would also aid in improving justice through a minority voice. African Americans also wanted to establish their cultural identity and later produced novels, short stories and poetry. Based on archives from such groups as literary societies, it was noted that public lectures and social and political speeches were prepared for by literate individuals who wrote their own materials.
African Americans began to take advantage of their freedom and, as they were still banned from many clubs and theaters, felt they needed to establish themselves as cultured, intelligent and involved in literature and society. As early as 1841, blacks from upper and middle classes whose main goal was to protest slavery and focus on abolition and other political matters, contributed to building libraries, sponsoring lectures, and forming debate societies and literary clubs. More and more, writing focused on the struggle for civil rights and authors attempted to prove to society that they and the characters in their genres were educated. Literary journals were also published, including The Voice of the Negro, Colored AmericanMagazine, and The Crisis. These journals included news, legal issues, political commentary, creative writing, poems, fiction, drama, some artwork, literature, etc. The journals helped to build a sense of community between writers and readers and were included in discussions during literary meetings. Many of the problems African Americans had, however, arose from the prejudice of white publishers who refused to print their works, which many times focused on the African American struggle and race issues, and in most cases, women writers, who focused on gender issues and political causes were also refused publication.
As more and more womens groups formed, a high concentration arose which focused on raising intellectual and education standards of women through reading, writing, and discussion. African American women were focused on fighting off stereotypes that they were inferior to men and and could not fit in with a higher culture, thus, they began to establish kindergartens and high schools, which strictly focused on reading literature.
One issue that is perplexing about McHenry and Heath’s essay is the fact that the whole idea of the article is to illustrate African Americans as literate and active participants in the reading the writing process between 1830-1940, despite the fact that history has mainly described the culture as “oral.” However, although history popularizes the idea that poverty identifies the culture, the authors attest that it is uncommon to “[ … ] detail the contributions of middle and upper class African Americans” (261). Time and time again the authors use the words, “urban-middle and upper classes,” “elite group,” “these classes,” and uses the terms “upper classes” almost half a dozen more times. If McHenry and Heath try to abolish the idea that African Americans put forth a great amount of literature, and strove to become equals in a literate society, why would they simply focus on one class of African Americans and not the struggling, underclasses as if these groups have made no positive literary contributions to society. The idea that the authors are trying to make, that blacks are not just an oral culture, is to attempt to show that their race is equal to their white counterparts and this seems rather ironic and somewhat biased and seems to contradict the point of the article because of the fact that the authors approach an essay focusing on one class of African Americans and leaving out another. Basically, the “elite” group of African Americans are more important than the nons and higher up on the scale? The whole point of the article is to signify that history has left out a group of people in terms of successfulness in literacy skills, but ironically, the other half of the group is left out. It seems as if this group of citizens is the only group of African Americans worth speaking about and the working class of struggling African Americans are still completely dependent on “oral” communication, having no concept of literacy through reading and writing like their counterparts.
Gere’s article, similar to McHenry/Heath’s focuses on misconceptions about literacy in particular groups of people, and literacy outside of the classroom, as well as people who find writing and literacy significant enough to form reading and writing groups. Gere’s article, however, focuses on a group of women, who have no education beyond high school, and who form a writing group in order to critique each other’s writing, and a small writing group in a farming community who also come to read and respond to each other’s writing, mainly writing about events and experiences surrounding them. Much like the McHenry/Heath article, the goal of the farming community workshop is to build a community and address local issues. “These writers bear testimony to the fact that writing development occurs outside formal education,” Gere writes (275). Unlike the McHenry/Heath essay, Gere’s writing group, specifically the women, come from all walks of life, including poverty, a history of drug and alcohol abuse, and aging, and still find the time, effort and passion to write about many of these experiences and have their voices heard.
The woman’s writing workshop, similar to the groups in the McHenry/Heath piece, hold public readings, maintains a local newsletter, works towards getting published, they read books by authors, analyze the works, talk about the effective parts, and most importantly, develop their writing skills through writing and rewriting, and editing. The group also fund raises and participates in activism for such issues as homelessness and black study groups. “Although it remains largely invisible and inaudible to us,” Gere writes, “writing development occurs regularly and successfully outside classroom walls” (277). An interesting point that Gere makes is that we’re so unfamiliar with successful writing groups such as the ones she’s described because we’re so focused on what goes on in school and the successfulness of the students, that we rarely concentrate on groups who become successful outside the educational walls. It seems almost odd to us that someone can not go to college and become successful writers because we think of school as the only means of education. One point Gere makes which shadows McHenry/Heath’s idea is that writing “[ … ] is constructed by desire, by the aspirations and imaginations of its participants…an action undertaken by motivated individuals who frequently see it as having social and economic consequences [ … ]” (279).
Gere’s article appreciatedm especially on page 284, when she wrote about how writing reached different classes and she described a woman who worked in a textile mill and formed a group called the Improvement Circle, where her and fellow employees met for writing and discussion. Despite the class differences, however, both McHenry/Heath and Gere’s subjects all focus on personal experiences and political issues of some sort, whether it be slavery, homelessness, equality, farming or drugs. Each person and group had some defining issue/s which binded them together to form a community and which they used to be heard and which, inevitably, helped them to share ideas and become better writers. Both authors pointed out that stereotypes consumed each group and remarkably, they were able to overcome the judgments and succeed in becoming better writers, voicing their opinions and being heard. Whether or not they were educated in a formal school setting or at home in a kitchen, they all contributed to each others writing in some way without the help of trained teachers or professors, proving that stereotypes are just stereotypes and a lack of formal education does not mean someone can or should be marked as illiterate.
Elizabeth McHenry and Shirley Brice Heath, “The Literate and the Literary: African Americans as Writers and Readers-1830-1940,” in Literacy, 261-274 [reprinted from Written Communication, 11 (1994), 419-444]