Printer Friendly

The process of literacy as communal involvement in the narratives of Frederick Douglass.

Harvey Graff has argued convincingly that faith in the grand promises of literacy has, more often than not, gone unrewarded. The nineteenth century, he contends, provided a fertile climate for educators such as Horace Mann to promulgate the belief that literacy inevitably leads to financial and social success. Literacy's failure to satisfy these expectations, Graff points out, is one of the social and cultural contradictions present "in the developing social relationships that make up the essence of history and sociology." Stating a central point of his revisionist understanding of the history of literacy, Graff observes that "the clearest lesson of the nineteenth century as the 'origins of our own time' constitutes much of what I deem a 'literacy myth.'" This myth involves a pattern of contradictions which he points to saying, "We may merely reiterate the role of post-Enlightenment ideologies and clusters of social thought and theory in providing the grounding for most of our current notions about literacy, and stress that many, though not all, of the facts of development contradict those assumptions and theories" (Legacies 265).

Graff also relies on the concept of continuity in order to interpret the history of literacy. To focus on historical continuities, Graff maintains, means eschewing an exaggerated emphasis on change, and rejecting persistent cultural dichotomies.

Slave narratives exhibit many of the cultural contradictions and continuities present in the social relationships of nineteenth-century America. When we look closely and examine the role literacy played in these slaves' lives, patterns of continuity and contradiction serve as analytic and interpretive concepts which help us to reinterpret these roles and better understand the slave's relation to the ruling culture of nineteenth-century America. Much of what is revealed in these narratives is the way in which literacy enabled and empowered blacks to gain freedom from, and control over, the ruling culture that enslaved them. The narratives also, however, reveal the ways in which literacy, as a tool of white hegemony, sought to exclude and dominate illiterate blacks. This contrast marks one of the contradictory ways in which literacy developed among slaves. To emphasize continuity, on the other hand, we must eschew the literacy / orality dichotomy and look at black culture's historical legacy of literacy--conceived as a holistic development--as another way that literacy developed among blacks in the nineteenth century.

Graff's interpretive terminology in The Legacies of Literacy suggests a framework for examining the role of literacy in American slave narratives. Too often, readers conceive literacy in these narratives as an emancipating skill which leverages the slave out of bondage and into freedom. When critics conceive literacy in more complex ways, it is frequently problematized by attendant poststructuralist conundra which pit language, and hence the process of acquiring literacy, against the narrator's "being" or "authentic self." Or, following the lead of Henry Louis Gates, literacy is conceived as mastery of a system of self-referential signs which, as Houston Baker explains, "imply an ideal critic whose readings would summon knowledge only from the literary system of Afro-America. The semantics endorsed by his ideal critic would not be those of a culture. They would be the specially consecrated meanings of an intertextual world of 'written art'" (Blues 103).

Frederick Douglass's antebellum autobiographies have been the focal point of recent debates over the significance of the acquisition of literacy for slaves. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) and My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) exhibit, in an exemplary way, a long tradition of slave autobiography that continually sought new ways to mediate the relation between writer and reader. This mediation, however complexly conceived, has elicited from several scholars a discussion that often turns on contemporary theories of language which decenter the speaking subject and suspend "autonomous discourse" alone above nitty-gritty pragmatic social interaction. Such assumptions about language are, in part, the subject of this paper. My own assumptions follow the lead of John Searle's speech-act theory which emphasizes the interactive, pragmatic character of discourse.(1)

It must be kept in mind, however, that our understanding of the psychological and social effects of literacy hinge on our theories about literacy. Deborah Brandt's Literacy as Involvement describes how prevailing "strong-text" characterizations of literacy "derive from a view of literate language as decontextualized ... and self-referential. Inscribed language is said [by strong-text theory] to rise clear of an embeddedness in an immediate time, place, and voice, thereby objectifying thought and language and heightening consciousness of both in a way that permits the reorganization of both" (3). Put more simply, "strong-text" characterizations of language emphasize the isolating, technological, and non-orallike aspects of language. Above all, strong-text thinking about literacy emphasizes the social-antisocial dichotomy, usually paired with orality and literacy, respectively. Literacy, as this prevailing view has it, takes the young working-class scholarship student and permanently changes the way she exists in the world, alienating her from her old community and engaging her in a textual world that distances her from her former self and community. This social-antisocial tension is seen nmost clearly in discussions of school literacy success and failure. Brandt describes the situation like this:

Children who do well in school tend to live lives outside of school that are richly dependent on literacy. They belong to households where reading and writing connect members to the world and to each other in tangible and often pleasurable ways. In other words, they experience literacy as connection and collectivity. Yet the cause of their success in school, according to researchers like David R. Olson and Catherine Snow, is a growing attitude of detachment, an ability to separate language from people. Thus, paradoxically, literacy seems to involve an intense contextualization of decontextualization, an intense socialization into antisocial ways with language. This same analysis, in reverse, is used to explain school literacy failures. Children from social groups that use language primarily to maintain social solidarity and context-resonant meaning will be at risk as readers and writers for their language orientation is deemed antiliterate.(2)

Brandt expands Graff's notion of the literacy myth, adding that the myth includes not only the mistaken assumption that literacy begets economic freedom, but also the fallacy that literate persons think better than do non-literate persons. Citing Scribner and Cole's research, Brandt's skepticism undermines the belief that literacy accrues any special cognitive advantages for people. But most importantly, Brandt argues that the "antisocial view" of literacy, the view that claims literacy is radically different from other language skills because it distances students, decontextualizing them from their preliterate social group, is wrong. She argues forcefully that literacy is acquired as a craft in collaboration with others. Citing the protocol analysis work of Linda Flower and John R. Hayes, she points out that good writers get beyond the rudiments of what to say next and concern themselves with how to sustain the process, what to do in relation to their omnipresent reader. Literacy in this view involves metacommunication, involvement, and intersubjectivity--a strong sense of shared human activity and new opportunities for community--not the hollow sense that, as "literate," one can't go home again.

This communal view of literacy raises significant objections to the usual view of literacy in slave narratives. We should now ask: Is the view tenable, as one critic claims, that the literate Frederick Douglass is "'as cast away,' without real community, by virtue of the medium of a distancing discourse" (Ziolkowski 156-57)? Is there really "a gulf created between Douglass and his community by his acquisition of literacy and its class-specific mobility" (Ziolkowski 156)? Are the cognitive consequences of literacy powerful enough to decontextualize or distance the slave effectively from his or her preliterate social context as "strong-text" critics claim? The prevailing "strong-text" orientation critics bring to their discussions of slave's acquisition of literacy needs to be examined and its claims attenuated in light of updated social and ethnographic empirical studies and the growing body of research that connects cognition and context.(2) As Brandt tells us, "Theories of literacy derived from oral-literate contrasts have been vulnerable to criticism from many quarters, primarily for their tendency to depict literacy as a monolithic technology with predictable social and cognitive consequences" (25).

Houston Baker's and Thad Ziolkowski's arguments represent the prevailing view of literacy disputed in this essay. Baker contends, in The Journey Back, that because the autobiographer's quest for being relies on the existing cultural landscape, and because Douglass was a black slave "unable to transplant the institutions of his homeland in the soil of America," he was compelled to adopt a "public version of the self ... in harmony with a white, Christian, abolitionist framework" (36-37). Baker concludes that Douglass's "authentic" self is distanced from the authentic voice of black American slavery to the extent that that voice is one "of a self transformed by an autobiographical act into a sharer in the general public discourse about slavery" (43).

Baker directs attention to prevailing antisocial notions of literacy, its causes and effects, in his comment that "the man alone, seeking self-definition and salvation, certain that he has a God-given duty to perform, is one image of the white American writer" (28). Baker describes a difference between the white and black man's ontological possibilities as they searched for grounds of being. For both white and black, Baker assumes that an identity, a sense of defined self, is adopted or sometimes created from the prevailing, a priori assumptions that constitute the cultural backdrop of one's social context. Hence, white American writers relied on a whole panoply of sanctions--spiritual, philosophical, and cultural--which fostered the prevailing notion "that the individual was unequivocally responsible for his own actions; a man was endowed with inalienable rights, and one of these was the right to educate himself and strive for commercial success" (29). Baker assumes that, because blacks had no written language of their own, they faced an ontological crisis: "For the black slave, the white externality provided no ontological or ideological certainties; in fact, it explicitly denied slaves the grounds of being" (30). In short, without a written language, the black man, Baker assumes, faced the "problem of being itself" (32).

Acquiring literacy, Baker claims, will thrust the slave directly into the dominant literate culture, with fresh identity and transformed, in Douglass's case, "into a sharer in the general public discourse about slavery" (43). Such an act provides cultural connections, but, foremost for Baker, it also provides the opportunity for literacy to authenticate and ground the self, even though in Douglass's case this authenticity is tainted.

When literacy is conceived as a process of decontextualizing language--i.e., of decoding, and submitting to the literal act of reading and writing--documents like Douglass's Narrative or My Bondage and My Freedom are seen as archives of the self, representations of linguistic ability and things to understand in terms of what language is rather than in terms of what language does or did do historically for both writer and reader. The prevailing notions of literacy, even when they are couched in modern critical terms such as Baker's, direct our attention to the isolated self, the individual psyche, and to existential problems of being. This understanding of literacy unfortunately distracts our attention away from the real process of literacy and the metacommunicative function it promotes. The effect is to cause us to miss the intersubjective and communal function of literacy, which in Douglass's case is at work revealing a larger, more inclusive view of what is happening historically, culturally, and psychologically in these accounts of his life than what exclusive, strongtext models of literacy normally suggest to readers.

The title of Thad Ziolkowski's essay "Antitheses: The Dialectic of Violence and Literacy in Frederick Douglass's Narrative of 1845" suggests that Douglass's acquisition of literacy is on a scale equivalent to the spectacle of violence in the rhetorical structure of the Narrative. In Ziolkowski's language, literacy exerts a "centripetal" force, violence a "centrifugal" force--both modes of representation constituting Douglass's efforts to represent himself in the Narrative. And, in a larger sense, the title suggests the supposition that language works, not intersubjectively, but as a self-referential system of meaning. Ziolkowski's dialectical investigation of the Narrative precludes the notion--advanced in this essay--of literacy as involvement, for it presupposes a dichotomized relation between language and context, and between orality and literacy. Ziolkowski remarks that Douglass's "depiction of slavery's conditions is bound up in the limitations and modal biases of a complex meditation upon its own becoming, its origin--that of Douglass's Promethean seizure of literacy" (149). In this view, Ziolkowski's argument is more like Baker's than it is different. In both their discussions, these critics pit literacy against becoming or being. Baker's 1980 discussion seeks to demonstrate the ways that literacy, as an ideological stronghold of the dominant culture, transforms Douglass and militates against his efforts to write an authentic black American self. In Baker's Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature (1984), his view of language still sees it as pulled apart from social context, creating a gap that can be endlessly and ingeniously explored. And yet this view still fails to recognize that the basis for reference in language use is intersubjective, rather than what is read in the gap where one witnesses the alleged interplay of autonomous language and the speaking subject.

Both Baker and Ziolkowski dichotomize orality and literacy. Baker describes Douglass as a victim of his newly acquired literacy; Ziolkowski sees Douglass involved in a creative tension out of which he consolidates a self which he pulls together, not from the roots of his own culture, or even from his changing social context, but rather as a synthesis of militating phenomena in Douglass's experience. My investigation maintains that both Baker and Ziolkowski bring to their discussion of literacy the wrong conceptual framework.

Amore complete understanding of Douglass's literacy than what scholars typically offer may be achieved by eschewing strong-text theory and its attendant dichotomies. In turn, we need not accept the prevailing assumptions that literacy for Douglass involved social betrayal, psychological escape, or any sort of dialectical movement away from his identity rooted in traditional black slave culture. From my perspective, Douglass's literacy can be understood not merely as a mastery of textuality, but as growth in what Brandt calls "metacommunicative ability"; that is, "an increasing awareness of and control over the social means by which people sustain discourse, knowledge, and reality" (32).

Brandt's process perspective on literacy, like Lawrence Levine's historiography, emphasizes the social continuities of the individual's cultural experience. This perspective, furthermore, begs for the revised understanding of culture Levine's study provides. He writes,

Culture is not a fixed condition but a process: the product of interaction between the past and the present. Its toughness and resiliency are determined not by a culture's ability to withstand change, which may be a sign of stagnation not life, but by its ability to react creatively and responsively to the realities of a new situation. (5)

In order to see the continuities in Frederick Douglass's social experience as a slave, as a fugitive, and as a freeman, it is necessary to accept this mutable quality as part of our understanding of culture. Persons do not simply step out of one culture and into another when they "become literate." Reacting creatively to a new situation involves, in part, achieving a deeper understanding of one's present situation.

In Paulo Freire's critique of traditional literacy instruction, he describes the importance of demythologizing the very concept of culture in the mind of the illiterate. As a prerequisite to literacy, the illiterate must first understand his or her own role as a subject, already acting in and with the world, already transforming it through work. "To acquire literacy," Freire writes, "is more than to psychologically and mechanically dominate reading and writing techniques .... Acquiring literacy does not involve memorizing sentences, words, or syllables--lifeless objects unconnected to an existentialist universe--but rather an attitude of creation and re-creation, a self transformation producing a stance of intervention in one's context" (404). Freire's contention is well illustrated in Douglass's own attitude toward recreation, self-transformation, and dogged efforts to intervene in his own context.

Douglass's demythologized understanding of his condition as a slave comes early in his life--as early as seven or eight years old. His critical understanding of his world begins with an inquiry into the nature and history of slavery. The young Douglass asked himself, "Why am I a slave? Why are some people slaves and others masters? Was there ever a time when this was not so? How did the relation commence?" (Bondage 60). The questions put to other, older slaves revealed to him the prevailing mythology--namely, that God had ordained slavery, and bad slaveholders would be punished after this life. What Douglass eventually comes to understand is that he is not expelled from the social system, not outside of it or even at its "margins," but rather inside it and oppressed. This critical understanding, this overcoming of naivete is crucial to Douglass's immanent literacy. For as Douglass writes in My Bondage and My Freedom,

I was not very long in finding out the true solution of the matter. It was not color, but crime, not God, but man, that afforded the true explanation of the existence of slavery; nor was I long in finding out another important truth, viz.: what man can make, man can unmake. The appalling darkness faded away, and I was master of the subject. (60-61)

This psychological dynamic--the prerequisite need for the illiterate Douglass to right himself and demythologize his social context--demonstrates Freire's analysis and critique of the prevailing structure of an educational system which presupposes a simplistic concept of man and the world. It is too easy to see literacy as that which brings the marginal back to the center, those who are out, in. Freire describes these simplistic views of literacy, and the educational programs they induce, as a process that "reinforces the mythification of reality by keeping it opaque and by dulling the 'empty consciousness' of the learner with innumerable alienating words and phrases" (402). One need only recall the requests of many of the new students arriving at Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute in order to understand that these views of literacy are not caricature. Washing-ton writes,

Most of the new students brought a written or a verbal request from their parents to the effect that they wanted their children taught nothing but books. The more books, the larger they were, and the longer the titles printed upon them, the better pleased the students and their parents seemed to be. (156)

But illiterates need more than a dictionary to attain what Deborah Brandt calls "literacy as involvement," or what Freire calls "literacy as action for freedom." A dignified view of man requires that we conceive literacy, as Freire says, "no longer an inconsequential matter of ... memorizing an alienated word, but [as] a difficult apprenticeship in naming the world" (402).

This naming apprenticeship is dramatically illustrated in Douglass's effort to understand the word abolition. He recalls:

Every little while, I could hear something about the abolitionists. It was some time before I found what the word meant. It was always used in such connections as to make it an interesting word to me. If a slave ran away and succeeded in getting clear, or if a slave killed his master, set fire to a barn, or did any thing very wrong in the mind of a slaveholder, it was spoken of as the fruit of abolition. Hearing the word in this connection very often, I set about learning what it meant. The dictionary afforded me little or no help. I found it was "the act of abolishing"; but then I did not know what was to be abolished. Here I was perplexed. I did not dare to ask any one about its meaning, for I was satisfied that it was something they wanted me to know very little about. (Narrative 68)

Later in this passage, Douglass describes the way he tricks others and learns how to write. In both cases--learning the meaning of abolition and contriving to learn how to form letters--Douglass is acting to transform the dehumanizing structure of the dominate culture. Reading The Columbian Orator in this same context is a way for Douglass to intervene, to orient himself to this new and foreign social context, and to involve himself in what is really important.

What Freire calls a "difficult apprenticeship in naming the world" is Douglass's first step in demythologizing his social context and, consequently, a step of intervention, a demonstration of power, and an act of liberation. Furthermore, it is very much a contextualizing act. William L. Andrews has charted the way slave autobiographers' different speech acts influence (or fail to influence) their readers. Accordingly, a "declarative" speech act establishes intersubjectivity. Andrews points out that, whereas "expressive" speech acts might underscore or qualify an assertion, maintaining a distance between the emotional subject and the objective status of the world described by the assertion, a "declarative" speech act "unites the subject and predicate of a proposition in subjectivity, in the authority of the ego." Naming becomes a great power for the autobiographer. And, as Andrews concludes, "how he manipulates this power, and what freedom he makes of it, can reveal important things about the potential of the text to redefine the discursive relationship of narrator and reader in Afro-American autobiography" (105).

Douglass knows that literacy will do more than physically liberate him--it will also integrate him into a human community. This hope is, early on in his progress, also a curse because it seems to offer only alienation and vexation. He says in the Narrative,

As I read and contemplated the subject, behold! that very discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come, to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish. As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy.... I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity.

This momentary despair is countered by an awareness that promises long-term hope and permanent change. Douglass concludes, "The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness" (Narrative 67).

When living with Hugh Auld in Baltimore, Douglass recognized that literacy was a currency that could buy much more than literal freedom. Unfolding for his spouse what Douglass called "the true philosophy of slavery," Auld delivers what Douglass calls "the first decidedly anti-slavery lecture to which it had been my lot to listen." Literacy, Auld contends, "would forever unfit [Douglass] for the duties of a slave; and as to himself, learning would do him no good, but probably a great deal of harm--making him disconsolate and unhappy. If you learn him how to read, he'll want to know how to write; and, this accomplished, he'll be running away with himself" (Bondage 92). When Douglass describes Auld's remarks as the "true philosophy of slavery," he is identifying the historical, systematic ideology that sought to maintain white superiority by depriving blacks of literacy.(3) But Douglass recognizes that it is not just his freedom that is at stake--Auld tips his hand--it is also his psychological well-being and his very ability to "run away with himself." Auld's rhetoric belies the extent to which he has embraced the "literacy myth" and strong-text assumptions about literacy. For Auld believes that literacy will mean social and cognitive disengagement for Douglass, thereby rendering him useless and unhappy to himself and his owners. This belief includes Auld's inability to conceive of Douglass living outside the social context of slavery. If Douglass learns to read, not only might he run away, "he'll be running away with himself."

Douglass affirms this dual effect. He says that Auld's lecture triggers not only feelings of rebellion, but also a "vital train of thought," a thought about which he concludes that "knowledge unfits a child to be a slave" (Bondage 92). Literacy, Douglass now realizes, transforms the child-slave into a free-man. And commenting on the first social and psychological effect of his effort to become literate, he says, "I was saddened by the thought of losing the assistance of my kind mistress" (Bondage 93). But the privacy and isolation presumed to ensue from Douglass's determination to grow literate are temporary. There is a sense of solitariness in the stratagems Douglass employs while learning to read, but the real causes and lasting effects of his literacy are, as I shall continue to argue, social and contextualizing, not solitary and isolating.

In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W. E. B. Du Bois claimed that the experience of the American Negro was the history of "two warring ideals in one dark body," a "peculiar sensation" of "double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others." Du Bois added,

... the history is this strife,--this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truerself. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. (3)

Accordingly, the question we need to address is how literacy, rather than bleaching the Negro soul, enabled "a man to be both a Negro and an American" (Du Bois 3). The hypothesis suggested by Levine's historiography, Freire's social critique, and Brandt's reformulation of the social dynamics of literacy helps to resolve this Du Boisian conundrum. The apparent paradox that pits the slave's efforts to achieve freedom and independence against the slave's efforts to cultivate community is also untangled when black acculturation, especially the central issue of black literacy, is characterized not as a change from the old to the new, but as revitalization, reaffirmation, and recreation within the black community.

Douglass's reflections on slave singing can be seen as a way he sustains reader involvement and builds community. Douglass recalls,

This they would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves. I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do. (Narrative 36)

One purpose Douglass seems to have here is to stress the interchangeability of orality and text, not to stress the antithesis of the two. Furthermore, as this passage continues, it is quite unclear when Douglass is referring to his preliterate past and when he is referring to the literate present. For example, Douglass writes that "the hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. I have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them" (Narrative 37). Past and present blend in these remarks, preventing any easy contrast. The thrust of the whole passage emphasizes the coterminal relation of Douglass's experience and the "ineffable sadness of slavery." Although one might claim, as Ziolkowski does, that Douglass's "interpretation of the songs is shaped by the cognitive and physical distance literacy permits" (156), Douglass, in fact, never does offer an interpretation to substitute for the experience itself. And although Ziolkowski claims that Douglass's understanding of the slave songs was "but nascent" while still a slave, and that only after becoming literate does he attain "the critical distance requisite for appreciation" and finds himself "without real community" (156-57), Douglass himself acknowledges no such quantum leap in his understanding of the sorrow of slavery. Douglass does say, "I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear" (Narrative 37). However, the effect of those songs, he makes evident, was the same both past and present. The perspective of both time and literacy affords Douglass an opportunity to talk about this experience, the chance to recreate and intervene in his new social context, but nowhere in this passage does he articulate a deeper understanding of the slave songs than what he experienced the first time he heard the wild notes that filled him with ineffable sadness.

If we lay aside strong-text assumptions, we can see that what Douglass really does in this passage is build community, not separate himself "by virtue of the medium of a distancing discourse" (Ziolkowski 157). The point is that Douglass is doing something with this text, not merely saying something. He is intervening in his new social context; he is bridging gaps that might separate him from the community he wishes to understand him. He is inviting his readers to place themselves in the deep pine woods and feel on their own pulses the ineffable horror of slavery. Douglass's literate act of inscribing these recollections is itself a creative response to the need to recontextualize himself upon his emergence from slavery.

Douglass's mastery of the dominant discourse and his facility with rhetorical strategies are important elements in his acquisition of literacy, but they are not, by themselves, the primary means of his intersubjectivity--the community I claim his literacy creates for him. Literate development, Brandt explains, promotes and sustains intersubjectivity, which she views as "a fundamental, enabling awareness of the mutual work that is under way around an unfolding text, a growing understanding of how language and work (text and context) constitute each other. Learning to read is learning that you are being written to, and learning to write is learning that your words are being read" (5).

The rhetorical conventions of the slave narrative dictated that Douglass do something quite unlike what his literate genius determined to do instead. Slave narrative conventions, or literary conventions of any kind, tend to displace a writer's and reader's intersubjective involvement. That is, writers and readers might both conveniently rely on conventions as a framework and vehicle of understanding, and, to the extent a work is conventional, an original and creative voice is subsumed by these conventions and replaced by message-laden textuality. The striking feature of Douglass's first Narrative, and even more so of My Bondage and My Freedom, is how Douglass moves away from conventions and stretches traditional boundaries, concerning himself as a writer more with what to do than with what to say. The distinction between mere mastery of rhetorical strategy and intersubjective awareness is important, and one can clearly see this distinction demonstrated in William L. Andrews's consideration of the 1845 Narrative. Douglass works throughout the Narrative to build a discursive relationship with his reader. Yet, Andrews points out,

Douglass did not want that relationship predicated on the assumption that whites could read slave narratives from the standpoint of the distanced, uncommitted, merely curious collector of facts and still expect to know what and who they were about. Douglass did not want to indulge his reader in a servile way; he wanted his reader to learn something about his or her responsibility to the text. (136-37)

Andrews's discussion of Douglass's narratives directs attention to the slave narrative as "performance." As such, Douglass took the tradition of slave narrative to a new level. The abolitionist Ephraim Peabody, Andrews points out, was uncomfortable with Douglass's rhetorical posture in the Narrative, realizing that "Douglass was taking the discourse of the slave narrator away from the reportorial, objective, fact-oriented mode and into a new relationship to the self and language" (110). The relation of discourse, self, language, and audience shows, according to Andrews, a pattern that reveals the purview of Douglass's genius as an autobiographer. This range of purpose involves Douglass's pursuit of a community--a family, a group, and a culture that Douglass can call his own. Indeed, Andrews says that Douglass as "unabashed artificer" works to create the community he lost that day his grandmother slipped away, leaving him alone and crying at the Great House. However, what Andrews does not see is that community is not the culmination of successive stages that begin with oral discourse and proceed through written discourse, or even something to be had as a bonus at the end of the long process of literacy. Community is, rather, the very means of Douglass's literacy. This revised understanding of literacy stresses community and context as essential ingredients to becoming literate, not as forces that stand over and against an individual's personal authenticity, identity, and autonomy, as Baker and Ziolkowski contend.

The answer to the puzzle of how Douglass became so masterfully literate with so little help from traditional, schoolbook pedagogy lies in observing the power of involvement in the social practices that promote and sustain literacy. For it is not only the learning about language that is important, but, as Brandt says, "experiencing intersubjective processes--learning how to participate in the work of life (especially the work that involves print)--has to be given equal attention as a part of literacy development" (113).

Douglass's apprenticeship under William Lloyd Garrison and his subsequent association with black abolitionists like James M'Cune Smith and with the abolitionist press afforded Douglass many opportunities to participate in the work of life essential to literacy. After the Columbian Orator, which was Douglass's first significant reading material, he came upon the Liberator. This tabloid became Douglass's "meat and drink." He read it every week, and because of it, Douglass says, his "soul was set all on fire" (Narrative 151). What made this paper so powerful for Douglass was the way the printed word seemed to get things done. He goes on to remark that "its sympathy for my brethren in bonds--its scathing denunciations of slaveholders--its faithful exposures of slavery--and its powerful attacks upon the upholders of the institution--sent a thrill of joy through my soul, such as I had never felt before!" (151) It is this "thrill of joy" that makes literacy possible for Douglass. The injustices of slavery and the knowledge that words, spoken and written, can do something about it provide the rich context that underwrites and sustains Douglass's growing literacy. Douglass concludes his first narrative by referring to his labor--in this case, his work on the abolitionist circuit. My Bondage and My Freedom likewise concludes by invoking the notion of labor--but that notion now comprises voice, pen, and vote. The oral-literate contrast does not seesaw in Douglass's life: Orality extends to literacy as Douglass becomes familiar with the contexts that make literacy meaningful. And Douglass never abandons oral discourse as he takes up written discourse. As Brandt remarks, "Talk is not merely a temporary scaffold for young initiates: it continues to be a central means by which people come to public consensus about texts and thus sustain their collective brand of literacy" (114).

By reconceptualizing the nature of literacy, the process of acquiring literacy described in Douglass's narratives can be seen as natural, creative, and liberating--in effect, a vehicle for intersubjective community. Furthermore, this reformulation is compatible with contemporary research that argues that strong-text assumptions do not get at the way writers and readers really work. Although Baker and Ziolkowski fashion ingenious arguments, their

discussions, on the whole, constitute fascinating explanations wrought from their too easy acceptance of the prevailing notions of literacy. For strong-text proponents, literacy, while affording obvious advantages, necessarily involves losing something. The prevailing opinion among critics is that Douglass loses continuity with his past and loses his authentic self. Stated baldly, Douglass's literacy implicitly makes him into a reproduction of the dominant white culture. This is certainly not the case for Frederick Douglass, whose own testimony reveals so many individual and creative choices. Recent research that helps unpack the relations between cognition and context, between literacy and community, opens up fresh ways to read Douglass's communal involvement. Literacy conceived as communal involvement offers readers of Frederick Douglass's first two autobiographies a way to understand how Douglass sustains his self-pride and maintains group cohesion, how he discovers in his literacy a way to understand himself and still preach his message, and how, with language, he takes control of his own life and still involves himself in the lives of his black and white readers.


(1.)In To Tell a Free Story, William L. Andrews has demonstrated some of the usefulness of Searle's speech-act theory for reading slave narratives.

(2.)See for example Scribner and Cole's "Unpackaging Literacy." See also Schriver's review essay as well as Brandt.

(3.)The ideology of race and literacy has been carefully surveyed by Dana Nelson Salvino. She concludes that, in spite of black inventiveness and success with literacy, "ultimately, the hegemony of the white ideology of literacy prevailed" (153).

Works Cited

Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1986.

Baker, Houston A. Jr. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.

_____. The Journey Back: Issues in Black Literature and Criticism: Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.

Brandt, Deborah. Literacy as Involvement: The Acts of Writers, Readers, and Texts. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1990.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. 1855. Ed. William L. Andrews. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987.

_____. Narrative of the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. 1845. Ed. Benjamin Quarles. Cambridge: Belknap P, 1960.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1961.

Freire, Paulo. "The Adult Literacy Process as Cultural Action for Freedom and Education and Conscientizacao." Perspectives on Literacy. Ed. Eugene R. Kintgen, Barry M. Kroll, and Mike Rose. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1988. 398-409.

Graff, Harvey J. The Legacies of Literacy: Continuities and Contradictions in Western Culture and Society. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.

_____. The Literacy Myth: Literacy and Social Structure in the Nineteenth-Century City. New York: Academic P, 1979.

Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977.

Salvino, Dana Nelson. "The Word in Black and White." Reading in America: Literature and Social History. Ed. Cathy N. Davidson. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989. 140-86.

Schriver, Karen A. "Cognition and Context." Methods and Methodology in Composition Research. Ed. Gesa Kirsch and Patricia A. Sullivan. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1992. 190-216.

Scribner, Sylvia, and Michael Cole. The Psychology of Literacy. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981.

_____ and _____. "Unpackaging Literacy." Perspectives on Literacy. Ed. Eugene R. Kintgen, Barry M. Kroll, and Mike Rose. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1988. 57-70.

Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery. 1901. Intro. Louis R. Harlan. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Ziolkowski, Thad. "Antitheses: The Dialectic of Violence and Literacy in Frederick Douglass's Narrative of 1845." Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass. Ed. William L. Andrews. Boston: Hall, 1991. 148-65.
COPYRIGHT 1994 African American Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Royer, Daniel J.
Publication:African American Review
Date:Sep 22, 1994
Previous Article:The River Jericho.
Next Article:Richard Wright's long journey from Gorky to Dostoevsky.

Related Articles
Christianity and individualism: (re-)creation and reality in Frederick Douglass's representation of self.
Speaking of the body's pain: Harriet Wilson's 'Our Nig.' (Women's Culture Issue)
'To Disembark': the slave narrative tradition.
"The laws were laid down to me anew": Harriet Jacobs and the reframing of legal fictions.
Call-and-response: parallel "slave narrative" in August Wilson's 'The Piano Lesson.' (African American author)
Mexico: The Challenge of Literacy and Multilingualism.
Changing the course of history.
Black Thunder's call for a conjure response to American Negro Slavery.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters