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Kiley Austin-Young

Mr. Jarrett Anthony

English 266.601

May 9, 2009

The Liberation of Literacy: Frederick Douglass and Freedom

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. 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 Rhetoric
and Poetics of the Law (White 90-95).
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understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (Douglass 27). Here, as they are throughout

the Narrative, literacy, education, and reason are figured prominently:

These were choice documents to me. I read them over and over again with
unabated 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 truth
over the conscience of even a slaveholder. What I got…was a bold denunciation
of slavery, and a powerful vindication of human rights. The reading of these
documents enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought
forward to sustain slavery…The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to
eternal 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 understand

freedom 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 language

inextricably 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 and

human rights, between slavery and freedom. Douglass’ first grasp of these distinctions arouse

within him a latent capacity for self-empowerment, for a self-endowed freedom, which he

realizes can be purchased by knowledge—now open to him through his facility with the written

word—and later, by the creation of his own discourse.

The Narrative changes from biographical to dialectical in nature, from a recounting of the

facts 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 and

feelings, and more by a deep exploration of extant vectors of oppression, namely the cultural

forces 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).
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literacy, exists as a moral and emotional being with private thoughts and feelings, his status as a

slave confines him to a small sphere; his inborn capacities for perception and expression, and

thus 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 can

secure freedom and change the status quo. The literate Douglass is able to form and utter his

own 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 into

deliberation with other people and live in a truly public world, thereby fashioning an identity as a

citizen with a communal role to play in a world of law and rights. Freedom, according to

Douglass’ Narrative, is the ability to enter into coherent conflict with an opposition, to take part

in 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’ literacy

is the first step towards the achievement of his status as a freeman—as a more than slave, as a

citizen, as a political being.

Douglass writes of a text entitled The Columbian Orator, wherein he discovers a

dialogue, between a master and a runaway slave, in which the slave successfully persuades the

master that slavery is evil, whereupon the slave is granted his emancipation; this moment in

Douglass’ 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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change, or more specifically, the freedom of slaves and the abolishment of slavery—the abiding

hope that convincing arguments and compelling illustrations of slavery’s perversions could rally

the body politic to the cause of abolition. The master-slave anecdote, serving to bolster the ideal

of Douglass’ Narrative, carries weighty implications: it establishes an essential equality between

people and provides for an essential justice among people stemming not from law but from

argument and conversation. Douglass holds out the possibility of a public sphere in which the

dictates of law and culture can be debated, tested, and, perhaps, altered. He implicitly calls forth

a place, in the words of James Boyd White, proceeding from argument and conversation, a place

“for complicating clichés and first attitudes into deeper understanding and for extending

imaginative sympathy to those differently situated from ourselves…a place of coherence in a

process of cultural change” (White 274).

By writing his Narrative, Douglass gains admission to the place described by White—he

grants his own entry into a discursive world in which he must reconcile his own ideas and beliefs

with the needs and desires of others—and he invites his imagined reader (whom White calls “the

ideal reader”) to attend, with the intention of persuading and the hope of reconciling and, lastly,

determining how they ought to live. Douglass seeks to call into existence and address this ideal

reader—or the version of oneself that the text invites the reader to become; to paraphrase White,

Douglass calls for one to read one’s way into understanding the plight of slavery, into glimpsing

the perceptions and judgments offered in the text (White 92). The Narrative is in a sense about

reading and what reading means. 4 Not without irony, Douglass extols reading within the pages

of his book, establishing a common ground with his literate reader, whom he invites to recall his

or her own desire and determination to learn during the formative years of education, when the

4
White’s analysis of Pride and Prejudice, an altogether different text, paraphrased here, can be applied to Douglass’ Narrative as
well.
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light of knowledge first made a new province accessible to him or her. He then seeks to

stimulate in his ideal reader the unequivocal human desire for freedom, an end of being so vital

to existence that it is perennially visible and audible and perceptible.5

In holding out to his audience his conception of literacy and his persistent lust for

freedom, Douglass offers a mutually accessible ground, a zone of shared interests and passions,

from which he hopes to carry his readership, bridging the gap between his most ardent supporters

and his most hostile detractors, enlisting the support of the former while subtly disarming the

prejudices of the latter. He wishes to engage both his friends and his enemies, both his fellow

slaves and his enslavers in an articulate conflict, in a principled disagreement, by first inviting

his reader to imagine (at least provisionally) those common values, the merits of which sentient

beings can agree upon; the goal is to transform his opponents into people who can be reasoned

with—and eventually, redeemed from error—in terms of their own values. The engagement, if

successful, shifts the debate by appealing to the common needs and desires of the reader, with

whom Douglass shares common feelings and thoughts, and paves the way for the suggestion that

the fulfillment of one man’s want by the forceful deprivation of another’s want is wrong—

thereby identifying the parameters of the conflict and engendering discussion on its resolution.

Ultimately, Douglass’ ideal reader would find little of controversy in his text, for the

primary lessons Douglass bestows upon his reader are not about pain and cruelty, oppression and

subjugation, but about the necessity and availability of a public realm wherein people may seek

to prevail against each other by means of argument and persuasion, by methods other than force.

Indeed, Douglass argues implicitly that slavery, as awful an institution as it is, did not prevent his

emergence into public dialogue—rather, his enslavement provided the very fodder for his

5
On freedom: “I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it” (Douglass
31).
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emergence. Douglass suggests that slaves can utilize means at their disposal to empower

themselves, to improve their lot in life and to attain the freedom that emergence into that

forbidden realm affords. Douglass calls literacy the pathway from slavery to freedom because it

provides a medium to address the public world (and hopefully redress grievances); the example

of the dialogue in The Columbian Orator shows the ability of the slave to meet the master in a

realm outside of brute force, in the arena of public and articulate conversation.

In the final section of the Narrative, Douglass writes of his attendance at anti-slavery

meetings, during which he rarely spoke at first; the cause of his shyness is instructive: “The truth

was, I felt myself a slave, and the idea of speaking to white people weighed me down” (Douglass

67). Urged to speak by a friend, Douglass finally gains his voice: “I spoke but a few moments,

when I felt a degree of freedom, and said what I desired with considerable ease. From that time

until now, I have been engaged in pleading the cause…” (Douglass 67). The task of Narrative,

then, is not just to recount a triumph over the legal institution of slavery or to lament and expose

its injustices but to invite readers to share in a struggle as part of an enlightened community.

Douglass holds his readers responsible for self-empowerment and to the requirement of reasoned

disagreement through his own example: his is the text itself, the Narrative in which the man—

having acquired the ability to read and to write his thoughts, the means with which he is able to

inject himself into the debate—does so, and does so to great effect. Douglass is living proof that

the life of a slave can serve as powerful prefatory material to political education and, later on,

public influence. The pleading of the cause is both a manifestation of his discovered freedom and

a bid for the provision of that freedom for others.


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Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom - Frederick Douglass. Chicago: Book

Jungle, 2007.

Frederick, Douglass,. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass an American slave. New York:

Signet Classics, 2005.

Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace (Oxford World's Classics). New York: Oxford UP, USA, 1998.

White, James Boyd. Heracles' Bow Essays on the Rhetoric and Poetics of the Law (Rhetoric of

the Human Sciences). New York: University of Wisconsin P, 1989.

White, James Boyd. When Words Lose Their Meaning Constitutions and Reconstitutions of

Language, Character, and Community. New York: University Of Chicago P, 1985.