Over 200 words
Frederick Douglass recognizes that language, literacy, and education are all necessary empowerments for his ultimate freedom and liberation from slavery. Why is knowledge so valuable to Douglass, and in what ways in his narrative does he communicate the longing/need he feels for learning? How does withholding knowledge from Douglass serve to keep him enslaved and subservient to the system of oppression that seeks to keep him down?
This week, you are going to be following up the essay and poem from Emerson and Whitman last week by reading Frederick Douglass’ “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself” from your Norton Anthology Vol. E. This is a sharp, heartbreaking, and incisive autobiography of a slave written after his escape from bondage, and it remains to this day one of the most persuasively executed arguments against racism and prejudice that I’ve ever encountered. It is also a clear demonstration of the stakes that existed in America prior to the Civil War, for so many thousands of us, with which both Emerson and Whitman (as well as huge numbers of other Americans in Antebellum society) are concerned in their writing.
Here, Douglass relates his experiences as a slave without holding back any of the horrific details, and yet he manages in his writing a more damning rejection of slavery not by sheer force of shock (though there is plenty of this), but by virtue of the grace and dignity of his writing. Many of the slaveowners in America justified their barbaric practice of literally owning other human beings on the false premise of non-white intellectual inferiority. African Americans, they argued, could never read, write, reason, or create with any meaningful level of qualityâ€”certainly not as well as their white counterpartsâ€”and thus, these individuals were more like beasts than men, they said, rightly enslaved. Obviously, this is an asinine argument on its face, and it’s made all the more absurd in view of Douglass’ writing, which is so erudite and accomplished, so incredibly airtight rhetorically and so human in its articulacy, which proved the preposterousness of this false declaration upon the first publication of his autobiography in the 1840s. This ethnocentric/Eurocentric argument was even espoused by Thomas Jefferson for a time, who did indeed hypocritically own slaves when he wrote that “All men are created equal…” in our Declaration of Independence, when he suggested that because slaves “could not understand Euclidian geometry,” they deserved to be seen as less-than white men (whether anyone, Jefferson included, ever took the time to teach his slaves Euclid’s lessons is obviously a whole other story) and thus owned like cattle. Douglass’ oration and writing, and indeed his very life, stood as a living argument against this false basis of slavery, as here was a text, written by an autodidactic slave (an individual who taught himself to read and write with little to no assistance), that rivaled the literary accomplishments of any canonical literary figure. Who could say in its aftermath that slaves could not write beautifully, think with complexity, and comport themselves with every ounce of humanity that their non-slave brethren might? Which is to say, as you’ll hear in our Panopto lecture this week, Douglass’ autobiography is as much a book about literacyâ€”the power of meaning-making in words and arguments; who gets to define value and who gets it defined for him (as Toni Morrison wrote, “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined”)â€”as it is about slavery alone. Who gets to be defined as a slave, Douglass asks? Based on what (there is no legitimate answer to this, as Douglass shows)? And who makes these decisions? Based on what motives and justifications? All of these lines of inquiry as as much concerning the activity of meaning-making in semiotics as they are the literal practice of slavery that is the exemplar of their failure/power.
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