“But if he didn’t read, he was a slave.”

This quotation occurs in the chapter titled “Caesar.” After seeing Cora beaten at Jockey’s birthday, Caesar goes to the schoolhouse, his particular place of refuge at Randall, to take comfort in holding the book he has hidden there. Caesar has convinced Fletcher to give him the book, despite the danger Caesar will be in if he is caught reading. For Caesar, the risk is worth it. Reading reminds Caesar of his life before Randall, when he was not free but was allowed to live almost as if he were. When he holds the book, he can imagine living like that again. Reading a book, not just the brand name stamped on iron shackles, keeps alive in him the determination to escape. Without the book, he fears he will become resigned to his life at Randall, a slave in his mind as well as his body.

“Look around. If they kill a slave for learning his letters, how do you think they feel about a library? We’re in a room brimming with ideas. Too many ideas for a colored man. Or woman.”

Valentine speaks these words to Cora in the “Indiana” chapter, when he finds her reading in the farm library. This passage foreshadows the destruction of the farm and the burning of the library by the mob that descends during Mingo and Lander’s debate. Many at the farm have the sense that its success has gone too far for their white neighbors to tolerate any longer. While Indiana is not a slave state, there is still a sense that Black people do not deserve true equality with whites. It is not illegal in Indiana for Black people to read or have a book, but Valentine suggests the library is pushing the boundaries of what will be allowed. If a book symbolizes individual freedom in the novel, the library represents full equality for the whole community. Valentine himself owning land is tolerated by his neighbors, but a thriving community of Black people adding land adjoining his and gathering together to imagine a robust future for themselves and their children is more than they will allow.

“South Carolina maintained a different attitude toward colored progress, as Sam had told Cora on the platform. Cora had savored this fact in a multitude of ways over the months, but the provision for colored education was among the most nourishing.” 

In the chapter titled “South Carolina,” Cora begins to learn to read. Her lessons are part of the system of betterment organized by the town. While many aspects of that system are highly controlling and patronizing, Cora is grateful to learn to read. On the plantation, Connelly put the eyes out of an enslaved man who attempted to learn to read, preferring to lose his labor and make him an example to scare others away from trying. In the novel as in historical fact, white people who held Black people in bondage feared their learning to read because it would make it easier for them to organize rebellions. Written language is powerful because it allows people to communicate over time and distance, without needing to be near one another. Cora recognizes learning to read as part of the process of becoming free and leaving plantation life behind her. She is proud of herself for her increasing independence and believes her mother would be proud of her too, for this process of freeing her mind from enslavement.