In 1828, President John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary about meeting with a group of Cherokee Indians to negotiate a treaty. He was impressed with an elder member of the tribe named Sequoyah, who had created an alphabet for the Cherokees’ spoken language. Adams wrote that Sequoyah had rendered a great service to his people in “opening them to a new fountain of knowledge.”

Jill Lepore cites the diary entry in a profile of Sequoyah in her latest book, “A is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States.” The book also includes profiles of six others–”including a freed slave named Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima–”who used language to help shape the nation’s cultural identity.

“Taken together, they bear on the most pressing issues facing the newly United States on the roller coaster ride from Revolution to Reconstruction: The need for an educated citizenry, the problem of faction in a large republic, the fear of disunion, and the challenge of unifying a diverse people,” she writes.

After Sequoyah created the alphabet, his tribe’s literacy rates rose, Lepore writes. Cherokees were “lawful and literate” people who ran schools and owned mills in the Southeast, she notes. But, by 1830, after the Indian Removal Act pushed the tribe west, Sequoyah’s hopes for Cherokee sovereignty were dashed. “Perhaps in the end,” Lepore writes, “Sequoyah understood his syllabary as the script of a people in exodus.”

The saga of Ibrahima, a Muslim enslaved for 40 years in Mississippi, illustrates how literacy was seen as a “pathway to freedom” for African Americans, according to Lepore.

The son of an African chief, Ibrahima was educated in African Islamic centers before he was captured and sold to a British slave ship in 1788. He toiled for years as a slave in the U.S., finally proving his identity by showing he could write in Arabic. In 1828, Ibrahima secured his freedom after attracting the attention of President Adams.

“By learning to read and write, a slave gained intellectual independence and access to ideas that would encourage his escape from slavery,” Lepore writes.

“A is for American” is published by Knopf in New York City.


Minorities in the United States receive lower-quality health care than whites, even when their insurance and income are the same, according to a March 20 report by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute of Medicine, a nonprofit that advises Congress. Authors of the study blamed subtle racial prejudice and differences in the quality of health plans. The study found that minorities were less likely than whites to be given appropriate medication for heart disease, or to have bypass surgery or receive kidney dialysis when needed.


The president of a mortgage company, found guilty of fraud for selling defective homes to low-income residents in the Austin community, was sentenced April 5 to 15 months in federal prison and fined $4,000. The West Side residents and the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law charged that Richard B. Nelson and other Easy Life Real Estate Management agents sold homes with leaky ceilings and electrical problems to unsuspecting minorities for nearly a decade. In May 1993, The Chicago Reporter found that questionable practices of Easy Life and other companies contributed to higher mortgage default rates in minority communities on the South and West sides.


Contrary to common belief, slavery continues to be practiced around the world, reports Kevin Bales in the April issue of Scientific American. Bales, a sociology professor at the University of Surrey Roehampton in London, cites South Asia and North Africa as areas where slavery is “a millennia-old tradition that has never truly ended.” To destroy systems of slavery, new programs are trying to rehabilitate both slaves and slave owners through programs of economic support, counseling and education, he notes. Slavery is “an insidious mutual dependence that is remarkably difficult for slaveholder as well as slave to break out of,” Bales writes, adding, “Our ignorance of their hidden world is vast.”