The Neighborhood Writing Alliance’s 2012 Every Person Is a Philosopher Annual Benefit is just around the corner on June 7! Our featured speaker will be Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of the New York Times Bestseller Wench. For the first time ever, we’ll be hosting a virtual book club in the weeks leading up to the event! Starting next week, each Wednesday we’ll be posting a piece from JOT related to themes in Wench along with discussion questions for the book. Today, we are thrilled to launch the book club with a guest post from the author herself, Dolen Perkins-Valdez! We are looking forward to reading along with you!
Guest post by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
When I first saw the proposed art for the hardcover of Wench, I was ecstatic. As a first-time author, I didn’t expect to have the final say on the cover art. Luckily, my editor and publishing house valued my opinion and input. “Will we use it?” I kept asking. The image called to me for two reasons. The first was the elegance of the woman pictured. I knew the word “wench” connoted a derogatory image of black women, and I thought the dignified picture provided a nice contrast. I also loved that it was an image of an enslaved woman reading. I was familiar with the storied history of laws concerning slave education. Following the Stono Rebellion in 1739, South Carolina was the first state to outlaw a slave’s education. In 1831, following Nat Turner’s Rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, several slaveholding states initiated laws prohibiting the education of slaves. Slaveholders feared that literacy would increase the spread of abolitionist literature and promote insurrectionary communication among slaves. Reading became a dangerous act of rebellion.
When I think of my love for literature and the written word, I mourn such drastic measures instituted by slaveholders. In her landmark essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”Alice Walker muses upon the dilemma of her black female ancestors with artistic hearts. When I read that essay, I thought: what if I had been born during slavery? How might I have found the necessary nourishment for my artistic soul? I have often melded my knowledge of this facet of slave history with an awareness of the general climate of literacy in the United States at the time. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, increases in literacy and education coincided with a decrease in the rate of childbirth for women. In addition, college-educated women married less frequently than their uneducated counterparts. There are many ways to interpret these facts, but I would like to think that it turns out that slaveholders—though corrupt and immoral—were, ultimately, right. Literacy leads to self-determination, which leads to subversion of an unequal status quo. As women became more educated, they exercised the right to choose from a broader set of options.
It is comforting to know that, even in this technological age, literacy still has its place. Reading and writing still have the power to liberate, inspire, and uplift. Storytelling helps us define who we are and who we will become. The fact that African Americans and women of all backgrounds were once prohibited from earning an education is further testament to the power of the written word. As I look at the hardcover image of Wench, I am reminded of that struggle, and I remember that each and every time I pick up a book, I am making the world a better place.