Part I: Frederick Douglass on Self-Writing “in the Spaces Left” and the Heteroglossia of Literacy

Amidst obstacles that most of us can scarcely imagine, Frederick Douglass learned to read and write from a place of extreme marginality. His beginning steps—learning the alphabet—came through the tutelage of Sophie Auld, the wife of his master at that time, Thomas Auld.[1] His reading lessons, however, were ended abruptly when Mr. Auld realized what was happening.  Douglass recounts Mr. Auld’s reprimand to his wife and his commentary on why one ought not educate a slave.

[Douglass quoting Mr. Auld] “A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”[2]

Auld’s remarks on the dangers of teaching a slave to read and the seriousness with which he spoke made a strong impression on young Douglass.  In fact, a few lines later he says that he “now understood […] the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.”[3] At that point in his life, Douglass vowed to himself that whatever it might take, he would learn to read.  His motivation was in large part due to the strong opposition he sensed in Mr. Auld to his becoming literate.  “What he [Mr. Auld] most dreaded, that I most desired. […]; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn.”[4] In short, at this point in Douglass’s journey, his is convinced that his freedom can be achieved primarily through the attainment of literacy. Thus, he commits himself to achieving this goal at all costs.

Douglass, like Foucault, also perceives a connection between knowledge and power and that the asymmetrical master/slave relation is maintained by keeping the slave uneducated. Knowledge must flow in one direction—from master to slave. The (dominating) authority defining the master depends in part upon his ability to keep the slave ignorant and to (at least) create the impression of the master’s own intellectual superiority and ability to exercise local as well as socio-political and legal disciplinary actions should the slave rebel. As Lisa Sisco observes, “Douglass understands that literacy can provide the power to re-define relationships of authority.”[5] Literacy, however, must be understood as polysemous, dynamic, and occurring in stages. To emphasize the processive character of literacy, Sisco describes Douglass’s phase in which he realized that the productive nature of the power relation between master and slave was constituted and maintained in part by keeping the slave ignorant, as “pre-literate.”[6] At this stage, Douglass is not yet literate but is “attracted to an abstract ideal of literacy.”[7] As we shall see shortly, once he advances in his abilities to read, write, and engage in public discourse, he begins to experience the very double-sidedness of literacy described by Mr. Auld—“[a]s to himself [the slave], it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”[8]

Sisco then brings Mikhail Bakhtin’s conceptions of “authoritative discourse” and “internally persuasive discourse” into conversation with Douglass’s account of his movement from slavery to freedom. According to Bakhtin, individuals find themselves always and ever in the process of an “ideological becoming,” which is a “process of selectively assimilating the words of others.”[9] As historical beings we not only appropriate actively the discourses of others, but we are also shaped passively by these multiple discourses constituting what Bakhtin calls, “heteroglossia.” As Bakhtin explains, “authoritative discourse” or an “authoritative word” is more than simply a set of rules, directives, and fact-like information; it “strives rather to determine the very bases of our ideological interrelations with the world, the very basis of our behavior, it performs here as authoritative discourse, andan internally persuasive discourse.”[10]


[1] Later in chapter seven, Douglass provides an insightful socio-political commentary on how slavery harms not only the slave but also masters and mistresses.  Here Douglass describes Mrs. Auld’s descent into socially shaped and habituated “depravity” as she loses her compassion and ability to see Douglass as a human being. “She at first lacked the depravity indispensable to shutting me up in mental darkness. It was at least necessary for her to have some training in the exercise of irresponsible power, to make her equal to the task of treating me as though I were a brute” (Douglass, Narrative of the Life, 40).

[2] Ibid., 37.

[3] Ibid., 37–8.

[4] Ibid., 38.

[5] Sisco, “Writing in the Spaces Left,” 196.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Douglass, Narrative of the Life, 37.

[9] Baktin, The Dialogic Imagination, 341

[10] Ibid., 342.