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Socially Conscious Literature: Arguing for Abolition

The abolitionist movement—the effort to end slavery in the United States—used many different kinds of writing to persuade people of the rightness of their cause. Abolitionists wrote pamphlets and published newspapers. They wrote poems, stories, and novels. They published the life stories of escaped or freed slaves. While Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin were two of the most influential works, many other works also sought to turn the hearts and minds of Americans against slavery.

One abolitionist book featured in African American Odyssey is a children’s book titled The Child's Anti-Slavery Book: Containing a Few Words about American Slave Children. . . This book begins with an introduction to slavery, designed to make children see its injustice, in part by comparing the freedom that white children enjoyed with the situation in which enslaved children found themselves:

…are all the children in America free like you? No, no! I am sorry to tell you that hundreds of thousands of American children are slaves. Though born beneath the same sun and on the same soil, with the same natural right to freedom as yourselves, they are nevertheless SLAVES. Alas for them! Their parents cannot train them as they will, for they too have MASTERS. These masters say to them:

“Your children are OURS—OUR PROPERTY! They shall not be taught to read or write; they shall never go to school; they shall not be taught to read the Bible; they must submit to us and not to you; we shall whip them, sell them, and do what else we please with them. They shall never own themselves, never have the right to dispose of themselves and shall obey us in all things as long as they live.”

From The Child's Anti-Slavery Book: Containing a Few Words about American Slave Children, image 10

The book also includes four stories about enslaved children, including Little Lewis. Three of Lewis’s brothers and sisters and his parents have been sold to other owners, so only he and his little brother Ned remain together. A year after being sold, his mother, unable to work because of mental problems brought on by the loss of her children, is allowed to visit her two young sons. On the visit, she tries to commit suicide. While she recovers, Lewis sits by her bedside and listens to her talk:

She showed him her wrists where they had been worn by the irons, and her back scarred by the whip, and she told him of cruelties that we may not repeat here. She talked with him as if he were a man, and not a child; and as he listened his heart and mind seemed to reach forward, and he became almost a man in thought. He seemed to live whole years in those few days that he talked with his mother. It was here that the fearful fact dawned upon him as it never had before. He was a slave! He had no control over his own person or actions, but he belonged soul and body to another man, who had power to control him in everything.

From The Child's Anti-Slavery Book: Containing a Few Words about American Slave Children, image 39

Lewis decides then to learn to read and to escape from slavery at the first opportunity. Despite great determination, Lewis is prevented from learning to read and slips into depression. At 17, he is traded to another owner for the price of two horses. At his new home, the governess agrees to teach him to read and eventually helps him to escape. While Lewis reaches Boston, where he lives as a free man for the remainder of his life, the governess serves three years in prison for her role in his escape.

  • How would you describe the writing style in The Child’s Anti-Slavery Book? How might the style of a socially conscious work of children’s literature be different today?
  • Which do you think would be most effective in changing children’s minds about slavery—the introduction or the stories? Explain your answer.
  • Outline the plot of “Little Lewis: The Story of a Slave Boy.” What events are most moving to you? Are there any surprises in the plot outline?
  • Read another one of the stories in The Child’s Anti-Slavery Book. Compare the story to the story of Little Lewis. Which story do you think would be more effective in achieving the book’s goal?
  • Find an example of children’s literature about a social issue in the twenty-first century. What similarities do you see to the abolitionist book? What differences? Do you think socially conscious children’s books are a good way to have an impact on social issues? Why or why not?