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

With Bakhtin’s categories in mind (see Part II), Sisco singles out the notion of literacy and its function within the hegemonic discourses of nineteenth-century proslavery America. When Mr. Auld terminated Douglass’s reading lessons and provided his commentary on why the slave must remain illiterate, Douglass became aware, in a way he had not been previously, of the conjoint character of power and knowledge. At that “pre-literate stage” (Sisco’s term), Douglass internalizes and begins to assimilate the authoritative discourse of his masters and commits himself to the task of becoming literate in order to attain his freedom and to subvert the master/slave relationship. “Aware that Auld uses literacy as a means to assert superiority over his slaves, Douglass plans himself to change his own position among these binary oppositions by using literacy to assert power over his master.”[1] As Douglass’s narrative unfolds, part of what we see is not only his growth in literacy and education but also his, using Bakhtin’s term, “ideological becoming,” in which he struggles with authoritative discourses, assimilating them as internally persuasive discourses that take into account his distinctive experiences as a slave and a black other forced to live in white America.

Because slaves were denied the opportunity of formal education and discussion about the topic was considered taboo, Douglass had to engage in creative resistance tactics in order to continue his studies. As we shall see, Douglass’s understanding of and relation to literacy becomes increasingly complex. His determination to learn to read and write in the face of systemic socio-political as well as local opposition required innovative improvisatory maneuverings on his part.  The drama he depicts of his struggle to accomplish his educational goals “reveals that literacy exists in many varying capacities in the rich interstices between and around freedom and enslavement, in marginal spaces free from such confining structures and ideologies.”[2] Douglass recounts, for example, how at age twelve when he was sent to do errands for his master, he always brought a book with him and a few extra pieces of bread.  He would complete the errand as quickly as possible so that he might interact with the white boys playing in the streets, some of whom were quite poor and hungry. Douglass befriended the boys by giving them bread to eat and over time “converted [them] into teachers.”[3] By engaging in these resistance tactics, he was able to secure a reading lesson with every errand.

For his writing lessons, Douglass was equally creative. While walking through the shipyards one day, he noticed that the ship carpenters used a letter abbreviation system to mark the various pieces of wood to be used for the different parts of a ship.  The letter “L” indicated a board for the larboard side, the letter “S” the starboard side, “S.F.” the starboard side forward, “S.A.” the starboard aft, and so forth. Douglass learned in a relatively short amount of time both the names of these four letters and how to write them.[4] As Sisco observes, “[o]n the body of ships which both represent freedom and facilitate slavery, literacy is used by the shipbuilders for a purely utilitarian purpose”; however, Douglass is able to recontextualize this “functional use of literacy” and “to transform the shipyard into a scene of self-education and an act of political resistance.”[5]

His next subversive move was to find a white boy and challenge him to a writing “duel.” That is, Douglass would inform the white boy that he could write as well as the latter. The white boy would then demand that Douglass prove it; Douglass would write a letter and the white boy would follow suit. In this way, Douglass received his “public” schooling, obtaining numerous writing lessons from the white boys by playing on their desires for one-upmanship, especially with respect to a challenge from a slave. Quite cognizant of how “literacy, as a form of knowledge, signals a kind of mental superiority for whites over illiterate blacks,”[6] Douglass takes advantage of this antagonism and creates educational sites wherever he goes. Describing his non-traditional classroom during that time, he writes, “my copy-book was the board fence, brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk.”[7] Finally, Douglass’s basic writing lessons were completed when he was able to copy “the Italics in Webster’s Spelling Book” by memory.  At this stage, he had been using little Master Thomas’s (Mr. Auld’s son) old copy-books, which had been more or less discarded. As Douglass explains, while Mrs. Auld was away at a meeting on Monday afternoons, he would “spend time in writing in the spaces left in [little] Master Thomas’s copy-book, copying what he had written.”[8] At last, over the course of seven years at the Auld’s, Douglass succeeded in reaching his goal of learning to read and write via his willful acts of “subterfuge, antagonism, direct imitation, and ultimately self-insertion in the margins of the ‘authoritative discourse’ of a southern ideology of literacy.”[9] Working within the racialized structures, authoritative discourses, and unjust practices of white southern society, “Douglass […] emerges as a literate individual in the marginal spaces between the world sanctioned by slavery and an alternating space of his own making free from its oppressive limitations.”[10]


[1] Sisco, “Writing in the Spaces Left,” 197.

[2] Ibid., 199.

[3] Douglass, Narrative of the Life, 41.

[4] Ibid., 44.

[5] Sisco, “Writing in the Spaces Left,” 202.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Douglass, Narrative of the Life, 44.

[8] Ibid., 45.

[9] Sisco, “Writing in the Spaces Left,” 201. Sisco goes on to describe Douglass’s tactics as involving a “rather deconstructive insight [in which he] sees that whenever literacy is used for a particular purpose by whites, there is at that very same moment a whole host of ‘spaces left’ for literacy to be also performing other functions. Increasingly aware of those spaces, Douglass manages to exploit their rich potential” (ibid.).

[10] Ibid., 203.  Sisco adds that “[t]hese scenes capture what Bakhtin calls a ‘double-voicedness’ in that Douglass simultaneously acknowledges both the ‘authoritative discourse’ of the institution of slavery and his own ‘internally persuasive discourse’ about literacy” (ibid.).