Frederick Douglass: The Paradoxes of Literacy in Liminality

Frederick Douglass StudyingThose familiar with Douglass’s Narrative of the Life will readily recall his creative, improvisatory maneuverings as he strove toward his goal of literacy. Given that the authoritative discourses did not even permit serious discussion of the possibility of a slave being formally educated, Douglass employed his creative intellectual and imaginative powers to create his own “school” by transforming his daily tasks into opportunities to improve his reading and writing skills. Whether it involved playing on white boys’ pride in not wanting to “lose” a writing game to a slave or bringing extra bread on an errand to gift impoverished white children in exchange for a “stealth” reading lesson, Douglass created educational sites out of mundane tasks—and more extraordinarily, he created these within a context of oppressive, unjust, and demeaning social relations. [1]

Douglass takes advantage of this antagonism and creates educational sites wherever he goes. Having utilized fences, brick walls, and pavement as make-shift copy-books,[2] Douglass states that his writing lessons were at last completed when could copy “the Italics in Webster’s Spelling Book” by memory. [3].  In addition to improvising with the objects just mentioned, Douglass notes that he had also make good use of little Master Thomas’s (Mr. Auld’s son) old and quite used copy-books. As Douglass explains, while Mrs. Auld attended her weekly Monday afternoon meeting, he would “spend time in writing in the spaces left in [little] Master Thomas’s copy-book, copying what he had written.” [4]. After seven long years with the Auld family, Douglass achieves his goal of literacy through intentional, creative acts of resistance. In other words, Douglass, well before Derrida and other deconstructionists, seeks those left over spaces, the in-between, silenced, erased and already “written” spaces in order, as Sisco puts it, “to exploit their rich potential.”[5]

However, Douglass’s attainment of literacy, just as Auld predicted, proves painful given Douglass’s status as a slave—one living yet socially dead. Having read and studied various essays and speeches arguing against slavery and promoting universal human rights, Douglass’s anger and hatred toward his oppressors intensified. As he explains, his new found ability to articulate with the utmost clarity why slavery was unjust and his increased knowledge regarding matters of justice and human rights gave rise to a deep discontentment—the “very discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted would follow”[6]. Commenting further on the double-sidedness of literacy for a slave, Douglass writes:

The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery. […] I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. [7]

Douglass goes on to say that he at times wished himself ignorant or a beast—in short, he preferred any condition that would rid him of his incessant thinking. “It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me.” [8] However, he could not make his mind stop. “It was pressed upon me by every object within sight or hearing, animate or inanimate. The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever.”[9] In other words, wish as he may, there was no turning back to blissful ignorance. Douglass’s literacy made him aware of his wretched condition as a slave in a way that was not possible before. Listen, as Douglass continues his eloquent description of how his deep longing for freedom was ever before him, bidding him draw near yet leaving him bound, boxed in, and unable to reciprocate.

[Freedom] was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm. I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed [10].

At this stage, Douglass came to the painful realization that for the slave, literacy, how ever good and necessary its attainment may be, is not sufficient for true freedom. True freedom requires the ability to participate as a full citizen and to have equal opportunities for education, employment, housing, and other rights granted fully functioning citizens qua social and political agents.  This realization in no way diminishes Douglass’s extraordinary achievements in the midst of a hostile and oppressive society. As we have seen, Douglass’s resistance to and reharmonizations of the authoritative (white) discourses and unjust socio-political practices highlight his creative ability to reconfigure his environment and re-narrative his subjectivity. However, Douglass’s freedom through literacy was partial, and, paradoxically, the limited nature of his freedom become painfully apparent as a result of his literacy.


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

[2] Ibid., 44.

[3] Ibid., 44–45.

[4] Ibid., 45.

[5] Sisco, “Writing in the Spaces Left,” 201.

[6] Douglass, Narrative of the Life, 42.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 42­–3.

[10] Ibid., 43.

Frederick Douglass: Between the Scylla of Structural Racism and the Charybdis of Entrenched Patriarchy

In his essay, “Race, Violence, and Manhood: The Masculine Ideal in Frederick Douglass’s ‘The Heroic Slave’,” Richard Yarborough highlights how 19th century, white bourgeois constructions of masculinity and “manhood” influenced early African American writers. We see evidence of the influence of socially constructed notions of gender in Frederick Douglass’s writings and speeches. For example, commenting on his fight with the reputed slave-breaker, Mr. Covey, Douglass describes the victory as having reawakened in him a sense of his own manhood.[1] As is true today, notions of masculinity and femininity, like notions of “blackness,” are shaped socially and culturally, shifting over time as a result of various changes in legal, religious, political and other practices and discourses. Douglass—as is the case with every other human being—is not immune to social forces. In fact, in many ways he accepts the (white) hegemonic view of what it means to be a successful, autonomous, self-made male.[2]  However, Douglass is acutely aware of what his white audience can hear and what they refuse to hear. In other words, as I shall argue, while Douglass succumbs to dominant (white) constructions of masculinity he also employs gender essentialist and gender subversive narratives in a rhetorico-rebellious key. To be clear, none of what follows should be taken as making excuses for Douglass’s participation in promoting a patriarchal social order or for overt affirmations of gender essentialism; however, it is to claim that advances in social progress—especially in oppressive contexts such as 19th century America—typically require for a temporary period a special deployment of the dominant cultural tropes for the purpose of reshaping cultural consciousness. The danger lies, of course, in allowing the strategic discourses—essentialist or otherwise—to sediment; instead, they too must be interrogated once the oppressed group’s political aims have been sufficiently achieved.

Yarborough enumerates several characteristic traits or features encountered in 19th century white narratives of masculinity. Among these “masculine” traits mediated through the white hegemonic narrative of Douglass’s day, we find: courage, self-control, rational excellence, nobility, verbal mastery, and autonomy.[3] Aware of such dominant tropes and realizing that they had to work against entrenched negative notions of blackness, Douglass and other black writers such as William Wells Brown crafted their autobiographies and their fictionalized black protagonists with white discourses of masculinity in mind.[4] Thus, we find in Brown’s novel, Clotel, depictions of black male heroic slaves as “hardly distinguishable from bourgeois whites” in speech, behavior, and appearance.[5]

On the one hand, African American writers were constrained by white narratives, whose influence affected the creative freedom and extent to which black writers could develop their plots and construct their heroes and villains. On the other hand, Douglass and others used the pre-formed white-masculinst tropes in creative and subversive ways to challenge prevailing views of black inferiority. Given that the white conceptions of ideal masculinity in Douglass’s day portrayed males as independent, courageous, powerful, self-reliant, reason-bearing individuals, who through perseverance and strength forge their own destinies, it is not surprising that Douglass describes his physical struggle with Covey as having restored his sense of manhood. Would his narrative have had the impact that it did among white (male) readers if he would have employed culturally “feminine” tropes? The most likely answer is an emphatic “no.” In short, black male writers were faced with a difficult balancing act in their attempts to create “successful” black male characters. That is, given both white views of ideal manhood and the negative depictions of black males as unreasoning “savages,” black authors had to justify incessantly every move their black protagonists made.

In his 1853 novella, “The Heroic Slave,” a fictionalized retelling of Madison Washington’s lead role in a slave revolt aboard the American ship, Creole, we find Douglass’s attempts to strike this impossible balance. For example, similar to his description of his own restrained use of physical force qua self-defense against Covey, Douglass depicts Washington as having exercised reasoned restraint in his heroic lead role in the slave insurrection. No doubt Douglass chooses to work within these white-formed literary limitations; however, in so doing he plays an active role in re-forming the white imaginary with respect to their false construal of blackness. Continuing his subversive rhetorical strategies, Douglass draws a parallel between the slave revolt aboard the Creole and the American Revolution.  As his drama unfolds and the revolt gains steam, Washington proclaims to his white antagonists (and here white readers are implicated): “We have struck for our freedom, and if a true man’s heart be in you, you will honor us for the deed. We have done that which you applaud your fathers for doing, and if we are murderers, so were they.”[6] In other words, Douglass appeals to socially approved (white) male acts of violence—the violence enacted by the white revolutionary “fathers” in their struggle for freedom—to justify the violence of Madison Washington and the other slaves in their quest for freedom.[7]

Again, none of the above is meant to promote a status quo position with respect to gender or race. Feminist and womanist theorists, as well as other critics concerned with gender equality are right to highlight the tensions in Douglass’s various freedom narratives—in particular, his failure to challenge the patriarchy of his day and his embrace of white masculinist ideals. Granting these tensions, Douglass’s imperfect attempts nonetheless challenged the white imaginary both to rethink their views of blackness and to confront the contradictions of their own violent, irrational practices. Douglass’s literary battles, both his victories and his defeats, mirror his struggles to break free from white constraint not only in the form of slavery but likewise in his relations with white abolitionists, in particular, his complex relationship with William Lloyd Garrison. As Eric J. Sundquist observes, Douglass’s ongoing identity formation was constituted in relation to a series of both white and black father figures. Douglass’s revisions to his autobiographies is in part motivated by his struggle to grapple with not only his present/absent white master/father (Aaron Anthony) but with the black rebel Nat Turner, the black hero Madison Washington, the white Founding Fathers, and white abolitionists such as Garrison. Through creating his own version of Madison Washington and his multiple versions of himself, Douglass engages in an act of self-fathering. In this stage of his life, Douglass refuses his role as Garrison’s “text” and creates a new, living, ever-revising “self-text,” or as Sundquist puts it, a “self-fathered figure combining black and white ideals.”[8]

Through his mastery of “the codes of Anglo-American bourgeois white masculinity,” Douglass sought to create a black male hero “who would both win white converts to the antislavery struggle and firmly establish the reality of black manhood.”[9] By choosing to birth his black male characters through white masculinist “codes,” Douglass’s successes on one front become failures on other. Nevertheless, given his context of oppressive structural racism and entrenched patriarchy, it is difficult to imagine how he could have navigated an error-free path. Perhaps an all-out frontal attack on both racism and patriarchy would have resulted in alienating those (males) possessing the political power and cultural capital necessary to bring about significant social change. Such is the complexity of our human condition and the difficulty of outmaneuvering both Scylla and Charybdis.


[1] Douglass, Narrative of the Life, 65.

[2] For a helpful analysis of how 19th century black males (and the majority of black females) accepted and helped to promote a patriarchal social order, see hooks, Ain’t I a Woman, 87–118. Hooks also argues that 19th century black male social activists “supported the efforts of women to gain political rights but they did not support social equality between the sexes” (ibid., 91).

[3] Yarborough, “Race, Violence, Manhood,” 168.

[4] For a discussion of the various instantiations of William Wells Brown’s novels, Clotel and Clotelle, see Yarborough, esp. 169–179.

[5] Ibid., 170.

[6] Douglass, “The Heroic Slave,” in Three Classic African American Novels, 66. See also, Wilson, “On Native Ground: Transnationalism, Frederick Douglass, and “The Heroic Slave.” In addition to highlighting Douglass’s strategic use of the Declaration of Independence and the principles of 1776 to win over his white audience, Wilson foregrounds the irony of the novella’s ending, viz., the slaves do not find a home in theUnited States but remain inNassau.

[7] See also, Sundquist, “Frederick Douglass: Literacy and Paternalism,” in Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass, 120–132. In addition to his fascinating discussion of Douglass’s self-fathering through various rebellious literary acts, Sundquist presents a compelling case for understanding Douglass’s novella, “The Heroic Slave,” as an important hermeneutical link between his first and second autobiographies.

[8] Sundquist, “Frederick Douglass: Literacy and Paternalism,” in Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass, 124.

[9] Yarborough, “Race, Violence, and Manhood,” 179.

Resistance Through Re-narration Available Online at African Identities: Journal of Economics, Culture, and Society

For those interested, my essay, “Resistance Through Re-narration: Fanon on De-constructing Racialized Subjectivities,” African Identities: Journal of  Economics, Culture, and Society 9:4 (Dec. 2011): 363-85. DOI:  10.1080/14725843.2011.61441o, is now available for online viewing


Frantz Fanon offers a lucid account of his entrance into the white world where the weightiness of the ‘white gaze’ nearly crushed him. In chapter five of Black Skins, White Masks, he develops his historico-racial and epidermal racial schemata as correctives to Merleau-Ponty’s overly inclusive corporeal schema. Experientially aware of the reality of socially constructed (racialized) subjectivities, Fanon uses his schemata to explain the creation, maintenance, and eventual rigidification of white-scripted ‘blackness’. Through a re-telling of his own experiences of racism, Fanon is able to show how a black person in a racialized context eventually internalizes the ‘white gaze’. In this essay I bring Fanon’s insights into conversation with Foucault’s discussion of panoptic surveillance. Although the internalization of the white narrative creates a situation in which external constraints are no longer needed, Fanon highlights both the historical contingency of ‘blackness’ and the ways in which the oppressed can re-narrate their subjectivities. Lastly, I discuss Fanon’s historically attuned ‘new humanism’, once again engaging Fanon and Foucault as dialogue partners.

Négritude’s Role in Reforming Marxism and the Relevance of the “Race” Question for All Human Beings

Aimé Césaire (1913–2008), engaging in deconstruction before deconstruction began, calls Western Enlightenment to account for its uncivilized practices and its inability to deal with the concrete, existentio-political concerns of people “on the ground.” That is, European “Western civilization” for all its claims to Enlightenment and progress has proved “incapable of solving the two major problems to which its existence has given rise: the problem of the proletariat and the colonial problem.”[1] Unlike the white Marxists, including Sartre, Césaire and other black Négritude writers could not separate the class problem from the race problem, nor did they overlook the connection between capitalism and colonialism. As Rabaka observes, “Césaire understands European civilization to rest on the colonization of non-Europeans, their lives, labor and lands. His Negritude, like Du Bois’s and James’s discourse, was a revolutionary humanist enterprise,”[2] attuned to the sufferings of all those exploited by the machinery of colonialism and slavery. Although appreciative of Marx, the Négritude movement (and Fanon as well) sought to expand and revise Marxist teachings not only to include but also to give top priority to “race”-based economic exploitation.[3] As Césaire puts it, the Communists “acted like abstract Communists” in their failure to address the “Negro problem.”[4] In contrast, the colonized and enslaved, given their concrete experience of racialized existence past and present, do not have the option to overlook the race question; thus, concludes Césaire, Négritude has a crucial role to play in the ongoing reformation of Marxism. “Marx is all right, but we need to complete Marx.”[5]

Césairean Négritude is thus concerned not only for the “political emancipation” of oppressed blacks but also, as we have seen, one of its chief goals is the creation of a positive black social identity. However, in the context of colonialism, with their past already written and their present constantly under construction, the opportunities afforded the colonized to shape and develop their own identity are severely restricted and practically non-existent. Because the colonial system is built on the exploitation of blacks and non-European others, the oppressed are increasingly viewed as things or as non-human animals. This reduction of humans to the subhuman realm harms both the colonized and the colonizer, and thus, leads to the degradation of society at large. Césaire refers to this phenomenon as the “boomerang effect of colonization.”[6] As he explains,

colonization […] dehumanizes even the most civilized man; that colonial activity, colonial enterprise, colonial conquest, which is based on contempt for the native and [is] justified by that contempt, inevitably tends to change him who undertakes it; that the colonizer, who in order to ease his conscience gets into the habit of seeing the other man as an animal accustoms himself to treating him like an animal, and tends objectively to transform himself into an animal. It is this result, this boomerang effect of colonization that I wanted to point out.[7]

In his writings, Fanon also highlighted the damage inflicted upon humankind as the result of colonizing practices. Like Césaire, Fanon was convinced that when humans, through repeated acts of self-deception, eventually habituate themselves to treat other humans as animals and objects, they perform a violence on themselves that has a tendency to produce ripple effects throughout the entire social body, including the “white” part of the body politic.[8]


[1] Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 31.

[2] Rabaka, Africana Critical Theory, 122.

[3] Commenting on the capitalism of his day, Césaire writes, “capitalist society, at its present stage, is incapable of establishing a concept of the rights of all men, just as it has proved incapable of establishing a system of individual ethics” (Discourse on Colonialism, 37).

[4] Ibid., 85.

[5] Ibid., 86.

[6] Ibid., 41.

[7] Ibid. Frederick Douglass makes similar comments about the social degradation that takes place in a slave society.  For example, Douglass describes how Mrs. Auld, his master’s wife, who at first treated Douglass humanely and with compassion, eventually becomes socially habituated to see him as a slave, that is, as nothing more than property to be used to further the goals of white society. (See, for example, Douglass, Narrative of the Life, 40).

[8] Césaire, in fact, claims that Nazism came about as a result of the “boomerang effect.” Employing his linguistic whip, Césaire unleashes a series of verbal strikes calculated to leave their marks on Europe’s back and perhaps reawaken its anesthetized conscience. “First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, […] a gangrene sets in, a center of infection begins to spread; and that at the end of all these treaties that have been violated, all these lies that have been propagated, all these punitive expeditions that have been tolerated, all these prisoners who have been tied up and ‘interrogated,’ all these patriots that have been tortured, at the end of all the racial pride that has been encouraged, all the boastfulness that has been displayed, a poison has been distilled into the veins of Europe and, slowly but surely, the continent proceeds toward savagery. And then one fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific boomerang effect: the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers standing around the racks invent, refine, discuss. People are surprised, […] they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves, that it is barbarism, […] the crowning barbarism that sums up all the daily barbarisms; that it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimated it, because until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples; […] they have cultivated Nazism, […] they are responsible for it” (Discourse on Colonialism, 35–6).

Douglass as the Quintessential Public Intellectual or How to Make Plaintive Lament Preach

Undeniably, the United States has come a long way from the days of chattel slavery, and we can be encouraged by the positive strides made in racial relations and equality; yet, it is important to remember whence we came in order to avoid repeating past mistakes and so that we might become critically alert to new manifestations of racism and racial bias.[1] Here we would do well to heed the words of Frederick Douglass’s 1852 oration, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Having accepted an invitation to speak to a predominately white audience in celebration of Independence Day, Douglass, as master orator and rhetorician, turns to a Psalm of lamentation—a passage with which his audience was thoroughly familiar—and interprets it as analogous to the situation of American slaves.

Douglass begins with the following lines:  “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song.”[2] The captors, having accomplished their mission, now command their Jewish captives, whose eyes still tear up when they recall Zion, to sing one of their native songs. To this obtuse, insensitive demand, Douglass, speaking the “plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people,”[3] asks, “[h]ow can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem […] let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”[4] Always poised and ready, like Socrates of old, to turn his public speaking invitations into opportunities to provoke and to challenge the ethico-political status quo, Douglass condemns his fellow citizens’ superficial “national, tumultuous joy” in celebration of America’s so-called “freedom” and independence. In fact, earlier in his speech, Douglass emphasizes the great “disparity” and “distance” separating him and his fellow citizens. The good fortune and “blessings” celebrated on this day do not apply to those of a darker hue. “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me.”[5] Beyond the surface civility, the fanfare, and the laudatory refrains, Douglass remembers, Douglass hears “the mournful wail of millions, whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are to-day rendered more intolerable by the jubilant shouts that reach them.”[6]

With this example of what Foucault calls “reverse discourse,” Douglass uses the familiar words of Scripture and says in effect, just as the Jews were taken captive by their oppressors, forced to dwell in a land not their own, similarly African American slaves find themselves as strangers in a strange land where they have been constructed as the savage, as the intellectually-inferior other in need of the white man’s culture, “superior” reasoning abilities, and “moral” direction. Like the Jews exiled in Babylon, the most suitable song, the song corresponding to the violent, unjust, degraded existence of an African American slave is not a song of triumphalist jubilation, but a song of sorrowful lament. For Douglass to gloss over this all-too-recent contemptible American history because he is no longer in chains would be to turn a deaf ear to the “mournful wail of millions” and to once again allow the white, hegemonic culture to write the black story. Moreover, Douglass reminds his audience—who, after all, function as analogues to the captors of God’s people of old—that God’s heart bleeds for the weak, the humble, the downtrodden. Though a merciful and forgiving God, divine justice unlike human justice will not, in the end, be mocked.


[1]  Race, race-baiting, race relations in the United States, and the media’s role in constructing racial identities continue as significant socio-political problems that must be engaged.  These issues are in no way resolved or behind us simply because Barack Obama holds the highest public office in America. See, for example, Frank Rich’s assessment of the Sherrod incident in his New York Times editorial, “There’s a Battle Outside and It is Still Ragin’.” The New York Times, July 24, 2010. (accessed  7/26/10).

[2] Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, 431–32.

[3] Ibid., 431.

[4] Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, 432. The psalm on which Douglass improvises is Psalm 137.

[5] Ibid., 431.

[6] Ibid.

Invitation to My Dissertation Lecture, August 29th

To all in the D/FW area interested in the topic, I would like to extend an invitation to participate in my dissertation lecture. My dissertation is entitled, “Constructed Subjectivities and a ‘Thick’ Account of Agency: A Foucauldian Dialogue with Douglass, Fanon, and the Augustinian-Franciscan Tradition.” The lecture shall begin at 6:30pm at the University of Dallas, Gorman Faculty Lounge (#6 on the campus map) on Monday, August 29th. A brief question and answer period and a reception shall follow the lecture. If you are interested, promise that you won’t throw tomatoes or any other objects, and can make it, I would love to see you there! You may read the dissertation abstract here.