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Prison education settings can be useful sites for analyzing the connection between literacy and citizenship. Approximately 6.1 millions Americans are unable to vote due to various voter restrictions that have been placed on people who have gone through the criminal justice system (Uggen, et. al 2016: 1). Eyes on the Ought to Be by Kirk Branch explicitly addresses how literacy functions as a tool for defining citizenship and rights. The relationship between literacy and citizenship is helpful in questioning what it means to be literate about “others” and how marginalized groups use literacy for subversive purposes.

    An individual’s literacy is directly impacted by the institutions that control the reproduction and dissemination of knowledge. As an institution of society, the education system has helped determine how rights have been distributed across various populations. For example, the field of anthropology has contributed to the ways in which those with power become literate about themselves and “others”. In Constructing Race, Humes argues that anthropologists have participated in the national project to “define, monitor, and protect valid citizens” and “distinguish them from non-citizens” (Teslow 2014: 38). In addition to functioning as a tool for understanding the world one inhabits, literacy and the knowledge that is reproduced in the formal education system has been used for exclusionary purposes.

    In Branch’s text, he described one of the motivations of Myles Horton and the Highlander School as equipping marginalized communities with the  knowledge and skills they may need to address the issues they are facing (Branch 2007: 17). This orientation towards literacy insinuates that one of its goal is to influence action. In hierarchical and oppressive environments, literacy is defined by those in power and can be wielded as weapon to “transform” and “improve” the oppressed. Becoming literate about the values and customs of “others” has too often been used to justify their subjugation. The Moynihan Report of 1965 was a federally supported research project to uncover the causes of Black impoverishment in the U.S. While leaders and advocates of the Civil Rights Movement used the information produced by the report to explain the legacy of slavery and the ways it continued to impact race relations, conservatives used the report to legitimize racism and discrimination.

    In addition to the formal education system, media also functions as tool for developing literacy about one’s environment. In Eyes on the Ought to Be,  Branch describes how common (mis)representations of incarcerated populations have influenced the extent to which they are acknowledged as citizens. As another institution of society, the criminal justice system is perceived as housing individuals who are incapable of being citizens because of their individual shortcomings. Furthermore, it is believed that they become citizens once these shortcomings are fixed through education (Branch 2007: 42). This belief is flawed due to its inability to address the ways in which education and literacy do not dismantle the oppressive structures that attribute criminality to certain communities. The ways in which we become literate about ourselves and others greatly impacts who in society is deemed deserving of citizenship.

    While literacy has the power to exclude certain populations from accessing and exercising all of the rights of citizenship, Branch also provides an example of how literacy can be used as a subversive tool by oppressed peoples. Opened in 1932, the Highlander School was defined as the educational center for the Civil Rights Movement (Branch 2007: 20). Branch explains how the school addressed the sociopolitical inequities that hampered a truly democratic society by equipping marginalized, mainly Black communities, with the knowledge and skills needed to reclaim their responsibilities as citizens (Branch 2007: 19) Myles Horton, founder of the school, had spent years conducting adult education courses aimed at preparing Black residents to pass the literacy test that was required to vote in their state (Branch 2007: 17). Literacy enabled Black Americans to imagine themselves as citizens and leaders in a society that had also used literacy to limit their participation in the social and political sphere.

    In Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight, Alondra Nelson explains how the Party used the politics of health to make claims about the state of Black citizenship. The Black Panther Party sought to make the public literate about the socio-political ills of the country and the ways in which these ills had manifested in the bodies of Black people. They linked the persistence of sickle cell anemia to the legacy of slavery and explained how the alarming rate of other health issues in the Black community was the result of contemporary racism and discrimination and a profit-driven health care system (Nelson 2011: 119). All of these factors undermined the community’s right to health as citizens.

In summary, the ways in which individuals become literate about themselves and others is greatly impacted by the institutions that reproduce knowledge. As discussed by Branch, “education is never neutral, objective or non-ideological. It is complicated” (Branch 2007: 23) Literacy is the institutionalized mode used to determine how we are able to act as citizens. It shapes our ability to imagine where we are and what we are able to accomplish in relation to other people in our society. In many ways, literacy can negatively impact those who are unable to determine what knowledge about them is reproduced and how it is used. On the other hand, Branch also explains how literacy can be used as a tool for self-determination by marginalized groups. Overall, the text describes how literacy and education can be exclusionary as well as empowering.



Branch, Kirk. (2007). Eyes on the Ought to Be: What We Teach About When We Teach About Literacy (New York: Hampton Press)

Nelson, Alondra. (2011). Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination.


Teslow, Tracy. (2014) "Franz Boas and Race"

Uggen, et. al, 2016. 6 Million Lost Voters: State-Level Estimates of Felony Disenfranchisement. The Sentencing Project