Friday, May 08, 2009

Literacy as Symbol and Material Means in Douglass

This was the first draft for my final for my American Lit course in which the various Lit notes were taken from. I had to cut it to get it below five pages, but unlike the Hawthorne midterm--which has a shorter counterpart that, had I not realized early on that my table was too largely set, would have been too long--this is a completed longer version, and so less a first draft than a longer final version (though I think the one I turned in was tighter). The below uses some of the material and thoughts mentioned initially in my reflections on Douglass, but these are some things I've been thinking about since I first read Douglass a few years ago for an African-American Lit course I had the fortune of taking at UW-Madison, which is a powerhouse in that particular field. What's more, since reading Ong and Havelock, my sense of the power of literacy has increased exponentially and so crossing over Douglass once more felt like a real opportunity.

One thing I found interesting in rereading this myself, was that, unlike most of my previous critical readings of poetry and non-assertional prose--my previous attempts to act like a literary critic--there is hardly a glimmer of theoretical argumentation in this piece. Almost everything else always seemed to trend around, sometimes strained, sometimes not, to my preoccupations with the philosophical canon. I see this piece as an integral part of my decreasingly hazy vision of not only American literature, or even American intellectual activity, but Western intellectual and moral activity. It essentially stiches together my fascination with the story of literacy with Rorty's argument that moral progress is made by imagination, and that there are economic conditions for this.

References are to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Yale University Press, 2001).

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


“You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.” (Douglass, 50) Frederick Douglass thus narrates the epochal shift in his relationship with the famed slave-breaker, Edward Covey, and transitions to his now final, rapid fight for freedom. The emphasis in Douglass’s choice of words here, however, is on a reclaimed masculinity, “made a man,” but if we emphasize the first half of his formula, how a slave is made, and then unmade, these words of Douglass’s become more appropriate for the first turning point of the book—Chapter 6 and his discovery of the power of literacy. Literacy for Douglass is a skill that allows for the free acquisition of knowledge and the ability to negotiate the white man’s world. Having become free and sitting down to write his narrative, however, literacy also becomes more than a practical skill, like caulking. In Douglass’s story, and what would become the literary genre of slave narrative, reading and writing becomes a symbol for freedom and humanity, part of a network of rhetorical echoes and antitheses that reinforce the story and moral related. To close the paper, I should like to speculate on how the occasion of the slave narrative proves to be a site of breakdown in the very distinction between literary symbol and practical skill, moral condition and material condition, and, what’s more, how that very process secures Douglass’s narrative its enduring relevancy and power.

Douglass’s main focus on literacy occurs in Chapters 6 and 7. Prior to this point, the narrative consists in elaboration on the condition of the slave, and while he does interpolate criticism of the institution here (along with various, more subtle textual strategies of undermining it), it is not until his move to Baltimore that Douglass introduces, as part of his life arc, the possibility and means of escape and freedom. In this lies the power of reading and writing. As the kind Mrs. Auld teaches Douglass the first steps in literacy, Mr. Auld breaks off the education, saying, “Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. … He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.” (31, italics his) This is a “new and special revelation” (ibid.) for the young Douglass and it opens up the “pathway from slavery to freedom.” (32) This pathway consists in the attainment of “the more valuable bread of knowledge,” (34) which functions in two ways for Douglass: 1) knowing how to read and write aids materially in his ability to escape from captivity and 2) Douglass learns that slavery is a contingent institution and that one of its main means of enforcement is the stripping of the slave of his humanity.

On the former score, Douglass’s ability to read and write aids him in, for instance, learning about the wider world from newspapers, in particular the abolitionist movement, (36-7) and in writing the “several protections” (62) during his first planned attempt to escape. Having become free and sitting down to write his narrative, however, literacy also becomes more than a practical skill, like caulking. While the skill of reading and writing, like caulking, is practically important to Douglass’s fight for freedom, it is arguably the symbolic power that literacy takes which is even more important for Douglass, and his moral cause generally. Douglass, having fought for freedom personally and joined the abolitionist cause, writes his story with a deliberate series of echoes, weaving together a backgrounding argument against slavery that the narrative carries with it.

We can find one echo-string in Douglass’s use of “unmanageable” in Mr. Auld’s argument to his wife. This is a strong echo of the word’s first appearance, a mere five pages before, as Douglass narrates Mr. Gore’s cool, passionless killing of Demby, another slave. Asked to defend this act, which is still illegal even in the South, Douglass reports that Mr. Gore had said, “that Demby had become unmanageable. … He argued that if one slave refused to be corrected … the other slaves would soon copy the example; the result of which would be, the freedom of the slaves, and the enslavement of the whites.” (26) Mr. Auld echoing Mr. Gore is Douglass’s deliberate strategy to bind together the two scenes and, between the two of them, they accurately predict Douglass’s future. From Mr. Auld, the fire for freedom is immediately flared in Douglass, who then becomes preoccupied with it and, consequently as Auld predicts, “discontented and unhappy,” (31) suffering “more anxiety” (39) and envying his “fellow-slaves for their stupidity.” (36) But this fire, which is almost never extinguished, becomes contagious—just as Mr. Gore predicted—as Douglass sets up a Sabbath school and, while teaching his students to read and write (one of whom Douglass says, through implied consequence of this, “is now free through my agency” (60)), attempted to “imbue their minds with thoughts of freedom.” (61)

The echo of “unmanageable,” then, suggests that the slave-masters by and large understand that deprivation of knowledge is key to keeping their captives in slavery. We can continue the echo and follow the string of literacy to knowledge to the first paragraph of his story:
“By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. … A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages.” (13)
In this powerful opening, Douglass employs de-familiarization, a rhetorical strategy designed to make the familiar and mundane, such as knowing one’s birthday, strange and exotic. Douglass sets the distinction between slave and freeperson as, not between the intuitive black and white, but between those who know their birthdays and those who don’t. Even further, those who don’t have this knowledge, slaves, are tied to horses. Slaves are symbolically animals to the freeperson’s humanity. By showing us what we are taking for granted, Douglass exposes the underpinnings of how our reality is created and held together—and in this case, how it is withheld.

Literacy becomes a symbol for freedom and humanity and it being withheld a symbol of slavery and barbarism. Throughout the early chapters, when recalling his age Douglass notably says “probably seven or eight” (28) and “between ten and eleven,” (38) keeping the echo fresh in our minds.)[fn.1] Douglass’s strategy here is to create a constellation of echoes on two sides of a margin, a series of antitheses that line up with each other: literacy/non-literacy, knowledge/ignorant, free/slave, human/animal. These two separate webs reinforce each other, each occurrence of “reading” finding an echo in “free,” “human,” and likewise “ignorant” in “slave,” “animal.” This rhetorical structure serves to reinforce the institution for slavery for both slave and slaveholder, stuck in separate webs.

Douglass creates these webs of reinforced meaning to identify their weak points, the inconsistencies in the logic the webs produce. Take this series—if we read Mr. Gore’s defense through Douglass’s rhetorical echoes, the suggestion is that if slaves learn to read, they will become free and enslave white people. Douglass is at pains to halt the scare tactic of revenge. Probably the most often repeated formula of the Narrative is that slavery dehumanizes both slave and slaveholder. (31, 33, 38, 41) In a very powerful moment, though Douglass is ostensibly only speaking of slaves (though the pronoun is importantly ambiguous), he says, “He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.” (70) In an absolutely virtuoso performance, displaying the twisted logic produced by slavery in a deep irony, shading the exposure with a detached sympathy, Douglass says that when the slave-master must “sell his own children to human flesh-mongers, it is often the dictate of humanity….” (14-15) One suggestion of our common humanity is that we are all “children of a common Father,” (75) but Douglass is at pains to argue that slaveholders simply use religion to cover their “infernal business with the garb of Christianity” (82) and that “he who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me.” (81, italics mine)

Douglass’s most explicit, passion-filled arguments in the Narrative are against the hypocrisy of Christianity under the shadow of slavery. He identifies this as the weakest point, the most likely area to persuade people because the rhetorical echo chamber of slavery will go, “Well, of course they are ignorant, they’re more like animals.”[fn.2] If they are completely animals, there is no way to leverage yourself in. But once you start ceding a little ground, like Douglass receiving six cents from Master Hugh, it becomes “a sort of admission of my right to the whole.” (71) Douglass wishes to train the moral echo chamber of Christianity—with “love thy neighber,” “the least shall be first,” “we are all God’s children”—on the institution of slavery and to do that he must argue its hypocrisy. Literacy is the hub around which all this swings because it is the gateway—“education and slavery were incompatible.” (34) It becomes the symbolic beginning of the end by lighting the fires of freedom and the material instrument of his fighting the abolitionist cause. It was a material condition for his escape from slavery and an echoed symbol of freedom and humanity in his story.

There is another control on literacy, knowledge, freedom and humanity, however, one that has its own life beyond the boundaries of slavery. This is “leisure.” Leisure figures prominently in Douglass’s escape and enters itself into the symbolic arena with literacy, knowledge, freedom and humanity. Leisure, of course, on its face allows for a certain amount of freedom, allowing Douglass to learn how to read, teach others to read, and plan his escape. But even more, Douglass specifically emphasizes twice how, as I alluded earlier, he almost had the fire of freedom extinguished from him. In the first six months with Mr. Covey, Douglass says that the life of a plantation slave, which in Chapter 2 he says “there must be no halting,” (18) had broken him “in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed….” (49) This occurs a second time on the docks of Baltimore, where in the “perpetual whirl of excitement,” “I almost forgot my liberty.” (70) After being released from those duties, however, Douglass finds that in “these leisure times, those old notions about freedom would steal over me again.” (69) What is striking is that in the first passage Douglass was in a very specific slave situation with Mr. Covey, but the second the situation was more like regular, hectic work—Douglass being the lowest man on the rung, was bossed around by both white and black. And while all these others were freepersons, Douglass says, I think quite deliberately, “I could think of nothing, scarcely, but my life; and in thinking of my life, I almost forgot my liberty.” (70)

The key, I think, to the enduring power of Douglass’s argument lies in one passage: “I saw in every white man an enemy, and in almost every colored man cause for distrust. It was a most painful situation; and, to understand it, one must needs experience it, or imagine himself in similar circumstances.” (75) Douglass, because of slavery, can trust no one, an abominable state of loneliness, and before launching a breathtaking tour of a former slave’s psychic existence, he suggests the way in which non-slaves might come “to understand it”—imagination. This, however, requires leisure. But to get leisure, one must have the freedom to lounge around, and the key to that is education. And the sizable populace of semi-literate, uneducated, poor white people still at this time should suggest the sizable cultural obstacle I think Douglass at least dimly perceived.


[1] In fact, Douglass inaugurates Chapter 9 with, “I have now reached a period in my life when I can give dates.” (42) The importance is clear, but what is remarkable is that scholars think he was actually wrong in the first date he gave. (111) This isn’t a strike against Douglass, but simply serves to punch up the fact that real knowledge, the kind free, full human beings have, is independently verifiable. Douglass says up front that he had never “seen any authentic record containing” (13, italics mine) his birthday, and in fact thirsted for that knowledge to his dying day. The fact that Douglass could be wrong at that point in his narrative reflects a post-literate, free state, with slave-masters no longer controlling the flow of information.

[2] It is important to note the established practice of prefacing a black person’s writing with white people saying they wrote it, from Phyllis Wheatley to Douglass himself. It is significant also to notice some of the comments received about Douglass’s narrative: “I have seen and read a Narrative of the life of negro Frederick Douglass, purporting to have been written by himself; (doubtful)….” (134)

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