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The Liberation of Literacy: Frederick Douglass and Freedom

The Liberation of Literacy: Frederick Douglass and Freedom

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In The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass recounts an event pivotal to his transformation from a slave to a freeman: the moment of liberation comes with literacy. While slavery in the United States was typically considered to be a legal regime, the primacy Douglass places upon his liberation through literacy reveals his conception of enslavement as a more complex status than that defined by law. Douglass, writing extensively of his own freedom years before he travels north, clearly defines freedom neither by the absence of external constraint nor by the ability to do what one pleases. In the process of defining slavery and freedom and in recounting his transformation from slave to freeman, Douglass thrusts himself into the public sphere and invites his readers to join him—to hear his claims to the virtues of justice and toleration and to make judgments about the authenticity of those claims, guided by the capacity for perception and judgment, and with a nod to common values, that the text itself seeks to unearth and shape.
In The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass recounts an event pivotal to his transformation from a slave to a freeman: the moment of liberation comes with literacy. While slavery in the United States was typically considered to be a legal regime, the primacy Douglass places upon his liberation through literacy reveals his conception of enslavement as a more complex status than that defined by law. Douglass, writing extensively of his own freedom years before he travels north, clearly defines freedom neither by the absence of external constraint nor by the ability to do what one pleases. In the process of defining slavery and freedom and in recounting his transformation from slave to freeman, Douglass thrusts himself into the public sphere and invites his readers to join him—to hear his claims to the virtues of justice and toleration and to make judgments about the authenticity of those claims, guided by the capacity for perception and judgment, and with a nod to common values, that the text itself seeks to unearth and shape.

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Published by: kileyaustinyoung2882 on May 12, 2009
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09/13/2010

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Kiley Austin-YoungMr. Jarrett AnthonyEnglish 266.601May 9, 2009
The Liberation of Literacy: Frederick Douglass and Freedom
In
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
, Douglass recounts an event pivotal tohis transformation from a slave to a freeman: the moment of liberation comes with literacy.While slavery in the United States was typically considered to be a legal regime, the primacyDouglass places upon his liberation through literacy reveals his conception of enslavement as amore complex status than that defined by law. Douglass, writing extensively of his own freedomyears before he travels north, clearly defines freedom neither by the absence of externalconstraint nor by the ability to do what one pleases. In the process of defining slavery andfreedom and in recounting his transformation from slave to freeman, Douglass thrusts himself into the public sphere and invites his readers to join him—to hear his claims to the virtues of  justice and toleration and to make judgments about the authenticity of those claims, guided bythe capacity for perception and judgment, and with a nod to common values, that the text itself seeks to unearth and shape.
 1
The first revelatory moment of Frederick Douglass’ life comes when he learns to read—a practice forbidden to slaves, Douglass learns, because it would make them useless as slaves;thus, Frederick Douglass the autodidact is born: a young man, wanting nothing
but 
to be unfit for slavery, takes charge of his own education and masters the written word: “From that moment, I
1
This section draws upon James Boyd White’s conception of the ideal reader as written in
 Heracles' Bow Essays on the Rhetoricand Poetics of the Law
(White 90-95).
 
Austin-Young 2
understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (Douglass 27). Here, as they are throughoutthe
 Narrative
, literacy, education, and reason are figured prominently:These were choice documents to me. I read them over and over again withunabated interest. They gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul,which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance. The moral which I gained from the dialogue was the power of truthover the conscience of even a slaveholder. What I got…was a bold denunciationof slavery, and a powerful vindication of human rights. The reading of thesedocuments enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments broughtforward to sustain slavery…The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul toeternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever.(Douglass 30-31).Literate, Douglass has the capacity for reason and consciousness with which he can understandfreedom and explore his own free will.
2
The section is pivotal: we see the subject and protagonist of the
 Narrative
as he strives to acquire the language of expression, a languageinextricably linked to knowledge and power. He makes a number of important distinctions: between soul and mind, between power of truth and power of conscience, between slavery andhuman rights, between slavery and freedom. Douglass’ first grasp of these distinctions arousewithin him a latent capacity for self-empowerment, for a self-endowed freedom, which herealizes can be purchased by knowledge—now open to him through his facility with the writtenword—and later, by the creation of his own discourse.The
 Narrative
changes from biographical to dialectical in nature, from a recounting of thefacts of a private life to a recounting of an individual’s philosophical maturation and emerging public identity, an identity shaped less by sensory experience, or by immediate thoughts andfeelings, and more by a deep exploration of extant vectors of oppression, namely the culturalforces and social institutions upholding the narrator’s enslavement. While Douglass, before his
2
In the words of Leo Tolstoy, from his epilogue to
War and Peace
, “Consciousness gives expression to the reality of free-will…freedom is the thing examined” (Tolstoy 1433-34, 1438-39).
 
Austin-Young 3
literacy, exists as a moral and emotional being with private thoughts and feelings, his status as aslave confines him to a small sphere; his inborn capacities for perception and expression, andthus his ability to exert influence, are stymied by his status as a slave. To make a slave content,Douglass writes with loaded imagery, one must “darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible…annihilate the power of reason” (Douglass 58).
3
By contrast, literacy transforms his perception and understanding of freedom: literacy serves to enlighten; to shed rays of illumination upon his thitherto stunted moral and mental capacity; to expose his mind to the powers of reason; and to open up a new sphere, the discovery and navigation of which one cansecure freedom and change the
 status quo
. The literate Douglass is able to form and utter hisown thoughts, “to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery” (Douglass 30).In learning to read and write, Douglass acquires the tools with which he can enter intodeliberation with other people and live in a truly public world, thereby fashioning an identity as acitizen with a communal role to play in a world of law and rights. Freedom, according toDouglass’
 Narrative
, is the ability to enter into coherent conflict with an opposition, to take partin principled debate, to submit the testimony of experience and reasoned expression on behalf of one’s ideas about truth and justice; slavery, by contrast, is the withholding of access to the political realm or the deprivation of the means to compete in that realm. Thus, Douglass’ literacyis the first step towards the achievement of his status as a freeman—as a more than slave, as acitizen, as a political being.Douglass writes of a text entitled
The Columbian Orator 
, wherein he discovers adialogue, between a master and a runaway slave, in which the slave successfully persuades themaster that slavery is evil, whereupon the slave is granted his emancipation; this moment inDouglass’
 Narrative
reflects the enlightenment ideal that reason and persuasion can effect social
3
Douglass writes elsewhere, reading kept masters from “shutting me up in mental darkness” (Douglass 51).

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