Date of Graduation


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts in English (MA)

Degree Level





Lisa Hinrichsen

Committee Member

David Jolliffe

Second Committee Member

Beth Schweiger


African American, Discourse, Literacy, Literature, Reading, Writing


The American South has long been a region associated with myth and fantasy; in popular culture especially, the region is consistently tied to skewed notions of the antebellum South that include images of large plantation homes, women in hoop skirts, and magnolia trees that manifest in television and film representations such as Gone With the Wind (1939). Juxtaposed with these idealized, mythic images is the hillbilly trope, reinforced by radio shows such as Lum and Abner, and films such as Scatterbrain (1940). Out of this idea comes the southern illiteracy stereotype, which suggests that southerners are collectively unconcerned with education and the pursuit of knowledge. In an effort to examine this idea in the context of literature, this thesis addresses the historical research done in this field that argues southerners were reading and writing. Further, this thesis analyzes three southern novels in which the protagonists use their literacy skills to manage issues in their lives. Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) presents the author's narrative of using literacy as an outlet for the trauma she experiences in her life, including racism and sexual abuse. Erna Brodber's 1994 novel Louisiana provides an interesting look at a young woman's attempts to enter unfamiliar multicultural southern communities. In the process, she must learn new literacies as she works to complete the oral history project she is assigned and embrace the Caribbean and southern cultures she encounters. Finally, Bitter in the Mouth (2010) by Monique Truong features a young Vietnamese woman coping with synesthesia and racial difference in North Carolina. These differences cause her to rely heavily on the written word, primarily letters, a form that is revealed to be incredibly significant to managing her entire life. Overall, the question that must be asked about the South is not "Were they literate?" but "How did they use literacy?" For the southerners discussed, literacy is a skill, a social practice, and a tool that helps overcome trauma, navigate culture, and communicate more effectively.