Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Tag: Fear and Vigilance

How to outlaw teaching slaves to read or write

Below is one example. Other states had similar methods. Sadly, this is only part of the unasked-for baggage our educational systems struggle with today.

A Bill to Prevent All Persons from Teaching Slaves to Read or Write,
the Use of Figures Excepted (1830)

The North Carolina General Assembly first prohibited anyone from teaching slaves to read or write in 1818, then strengthened the law in 1830 (in the bill reprinted here). The following year, another bill made it illegal for not only slaves but free people of color “to preach or exhort in public, or in any manner to officiate as a preacher or teacher in any prayer meeting or other association for worship where slaves of different families are collected together.”
Whereas the teaching of slaves to read and write has a tendency to excite dissatisfaction in their minds and to produce insurrection and rebellion to the manifest injury of the citizens of this state: Therefore

Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, that any free person who shall hereafter teach or attempt to teach any slave within this State to read or write, the use of figures excepted, Shall be liable to indictment in any court of record in the State having jurisdiction thereof, and upon conviction shall at the discretion of the court if a white man or woman be fined not less than one hundred dollars nor more than two hundred dollars or imprisoned and if a free person of colour shall be whipped at the discretion of the court not exceeding thirty nine lashes nor less than twenty lashes.

Be it further enacted that if any slave shall hereafter teach or attempt to teach any other slave to read or write the use of figures excepted, he or she may be carried before any justice of the peace and on conviction thereof shall be sentenced to receive thirty nine lashes on his or her bare back.

Credit text: Legislative Papers, 1830–31 Session of the General Assembly.

For nearly three decades I taught and worked with seminarians in a multiracial, multinational community. Most students were able to thrive. Still, there were some I couldn’t reach. Today I wonder how this legacy of punishing black and brown students and their teachers is being passed on.

These are heavy days and heavy nights. Reaping the Whirlwind comes to mind yet again. Not because of what’s happening now, but because of what was set in motion centuries ago. I pray each of us will become part of a solution.


© Elouise Renich Fraser, 4 September 2020
Image of NC Freedman’s School (1860s) found at

A Bird came down the walk —

Here’s another childlike poem from Emily Dickinson that’s filled with adult insight. My comments follow.

A Bird came down the Walk –
He did not know I saw –
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass –
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass –

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around –
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought –
He stirred his Velvet Head

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home –

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam –
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.

c. 1862

Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995

Here’s how I see this poem today—informed by my own observations, and the article I mentioned earlier about possible trauma in Emily’s life. The author saw multiple signs of this, especially in poems written around 1862 and beyond. Emily was about 32 years old when she wrote this poem.

  • Despite the childlike language and scenario, Emily’s poem conveys a sense of mystery. The Bird hopping down the walk is being watched and doesn’t know it. Might it have done something else if it had known someone was looking?
  • Though the Bird does something natural, the unnoticed onlooker doesn’t simply say the Bird ate a worm. Each action gets a full line in this short poem, perhaps to emphasize the suddenness and horror of the unsuspecting Angleworm’s demise. Is it important to identify the Angleworm? Or are they just a dime a dozen or more. Dispensable.
  • Stanza 2 seems to say life goes on as normal for the Bird. Still, it isn’t clear why this Bird hopped aside to let a Beetle pass, since birds regularly eat beetles.
  • Beginning with Stanza 3, Emily seems to know this Bird. She sees a vigilant, even frightened Bird whose eyes and head can’t rest. Constantly scanning for what?
  • The opening line of Stanza 4 is ambiguous. Who is in constant danger, Cautious? Perhaps both the Bird and Emily. Emily cautiously offers the Bird a crumb. Is this all she has to offer? In other poems she describes herself as starved. Yet we already know this Bird isn’t starving. Instead of taking the crumb from her hand, it spreads its wings like oars and heads for home.
  • Stanza 5 almost painfully highlights the ease and beauty with which the Bird and Butterflies, row softly and soar brightly above this ocean world in which vigilance is a constant companion.

I think Emily wishes she were a Bird or a Butterfly—beautiful in flight as she soars silently, through and above this ocean-like world of danger. Somewhere above the Banks along the seashore, making her way to a place called home.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 4 October 2017
Photo found at

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