Fanon, echoing Césaire, 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.[1]

Césairean Négritude expressed through his powerful prose and his distinctively black surrealist poetry provided a way for the oppressed to transgress the boundaries of a white world with into a “violent affirmation” of black identity. Thus, Negritude serves both a socio-political critical function and a productive, creative function enabling the decolonization process to reach not only society in general but also, to sound a Du Boisian note, the very souls of black folks. With these goals in mind, Fanon too, following in Césaire’s footsteps, advocates a “critical return to the precolonial history and culture of the colonized nation, a radical rediscovery of the precolonial history and culture of the colonized people”;[2] however, this Césairean rediscovery of or return to the precolonial past must not be understood as a quest for some paradisiacal, unsoiled, utopian originary moment, but rather as a critical engagement with the African tradition in order to bring its past to bear upon the present emancipatory struggles.[3]

As was mentioned earlier, this notion of “return” is one of the most important, yet misunderstood aspects of Césaire’s thought.  For Césaire, the process of decolonization requires a recovery of a pre-colonial African past. The colonized must strip away the layers of white mythology, which decade after decade  taught them to be ashamed of their history and culture, while forcing them to embrace white European values. Thus, in order to go forward and to carve out a new present and future, the colonized must return to their ancestral roots “to learn the lessons of Africa’s tragedies and triumphs.”[4] Here it is important to stress that this Césairean return is not a call to a romanticized, infallible Africa that must somehow be recreated in the present.  Rather, it is a call to rediscover African values—values emphasizing a communal existence and a sharing of goods with one another rather than individualistic, consumer, and market-driven socio-political and economic structures. Thus, Césaire encouraged a return to Africa’s past with the aim of a non-repetitive translation into contemporary society of those socio-political principles, cultural values, and ancestral practices lacking in Western “enlightened civilization.”



[1] 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 crowing 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).

[2] Rabaka, Africana Critical Theory, 126.

[3] Ibid., 127.

[4] Ibid., 128.



Césairean Négritude, as Rabaka observes, “is wide-ranging and grounded in black radical politics and a distinct pan-African perspective; a purposeful perspective aimed not only at ‘returning’ to and reclaiming Africa, but perhaps more importantly, consciously creating an authentic African or black self.”[1] A concern for solidarity with all colonized and enslaved people of African descent occupied Césaire and will likewise be Fanon’s concern. Césaire voices his pan-African perspective toward the end of his interview with Depestre. Having acknowledged that he and his colleagues “bore the imprint of European civilization,” Césaire then adds,

but we thought that Africa could make a contribution to Europe. It was also an affirmation of our solidarity. That’s the way it was: I have always recognized that what was happening to my brothers in Algeria and the United States had its repercussions in me. I understood that I could not be indifferent to what was happening in Haiti or Africa. […] And I have come to the realization that there was a “Negro situation” that existed in different geographical areas, that Africa was also my country. There was the African continent, the Antilles, Haiti; there were Matinicians and Brazilian Negroes, etc. That’s what Negritude meant to me.[2]

As part of his aim to establish a positive black identity, Césaire drew from various elements of his French educational training and created something new, something bearing the distinctive marks of the African spirit. For example, Césaire in no way denied the French influences shaping his work. “Whether I want to or not, as a poet I express myself in French, and clearly French literature has influenced me.”[3] Even so, Césaire states emphatically that while elements of the French literary tradition function for him as a “point of departure,” his goal has always been “to create a new language, one capable of communicating the African heritage.”[4] Here one might draw an analogy between Négritude’s relation to French culture and literature and the relation between African American jazz and European classical music. That is, just as African American musicians infused European musical practices with their own distinctive African-inspired rhythms, phrasings, and improvisatory emphases creating a new and unquestionably African-American music, Césaire, Senghor, and others took elements of the French intellectual traditional and reharmonized them to sound with a decisive African tonal center. “French was a tool that I wanted to use in developing a new means of expression. I wanted to create an Antillean French, a black French that, while still being French, had a black character.”[5]

With this new language as his weapon, Césaire begins his Discourse on Colonialism with a triple staccato firing of single sentence paragraphs, each carefully crafted to condemn Europe’s so-called civilizing mission.[6] Listen to Cesaire’s diagnosis of a “decadent,” “stricken” [atteinte], “dying” Western civilization[7]—a Europe revealed as “morally [and] spiritually indefensible.”[8]

A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization.

A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization.

A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization.[9]

Of course the culprit in view is European civilization, “Western civilization,” whose Enlightened and progressive vision 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.”[10]

Unlike the white Marxists, including Sartre, Césaire and the 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 and James’s discourse, was a revolutionary humanist enterprise”,[11] attuned to the sufferings of all those exploited by the machinery of colonialism and slavery.  Although appreciative of Marx, the Negritude movement (and Fanon as well) sought to expand and revise Marxist teachings not only to include but to give top priority to race-based economic exploitation.[12]As Césaire puts it, the Communists “acted like abstract Communists” in their failure to address the “Negro problem.”[13] 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.”[14]

Césairean Négritude is thus concerned not only for the “political emancipation” of oppressed blacks but also, as we have seen, it has one of its chief goals 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 black others, the oppressed are increasingly viewed as things or as non-human animals. This reduction of human others 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.“[15] 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.[16]


[1] Rabaka, Africana Critical Theory, 121.

[2] Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 92.

[3] Ibid., 83.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. Césaire goes on to explain his interests in the surrealist movement and how it became for him a way to “return” to Africa. Having described surrealism as a “weapon that exploded the French language,” he then states “[s]urrealism interested me to the extent that it was a liberating factor. […] I said to myself: it’s true that superficially we are French, we bear the marks of French customs; we have been branded by Cartesian philosophy, by French rhetoric; but if we break with all that, if we plumb the depths, then what we will find is fundamentally black” (ibid., 83–4).

[6] In “Orphee Noir,” Sartre makes several poignant observations regarding the different aims of the Eurpoean surrealist poets and the Négritude poets. Having just noted that “[f]rom From Mallarmé to the Surrealists,” the goal of French poetry seems to have been the “self-destruction of language” [autodestruction du langage], Sartre goes on to say that the Negritude poets “answer the colonist’s ruse by a similar but reverse ruse: because the oppressor is present even in the language they speak, they speak that language in order to destroy it [pour la détruire]. The contemporary European poet attempts to dehumanize words in order to return them to nature; the black herald intends to de-Frenchify [défranciser] them; he will crush them, he will break their customary associations, he will join them violently” (ibid., xx, my translation).

[7] Ibid., 31.

[8] Ibid., 32.

[9] Ibid., 31.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Rabaka, Africana Critical Theory, 122.

[12] Of 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).

[13] Ibid., 85.

[14] Ibid., 86.

[15] Ibid., 41.

[16] Ibid. Frederick Douglass makes a similar observation regarding the social degradation that occurs in a slave society.  For example, Douglass describes how his master’s wife, Mrs. Auld, who at first treated Douglass 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).



While recognizing that colonialization and the construction of colonized subjectivities are contingent creations and hence malleable, Fanon nonetheless understood that the process of decolonialization and renarrating new, positive identities and conceptions of “blackness” would take time and would proceed in stages. As Pal Ahluwalia observes, Fanon’s complex relationship to the Négritude movement can help us to make sense of his strategy to move beyond the “Manichean structure” of a colonized world.[1] Given the significant influence of the Négritude movement and Césaire in particular in shaping Fanon’s thought, it is necessary to spend some time discussing the movement and how Fanon appropriates and criticizes certain aspects of Négritude’s many inflections.

The well-known Martinician surrealist poet, Aimé Césaire (1913–2008), first coined the term “Négritude” in 1939 in his work, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, and is, along with Léopold Sedar Senghor, one of the founders of Négritude.[2] As one is made aware rather quickly when engaging the literature, it is perhaps better to speak of Négritude movements or variations on Négritude themes. Reiland Rabaka, for example, distinguishes between Sartrean Négritude, Césairean Négritude, and Senghorian Négritude.[3] Over against Sartre’s claims, Senghor emphasizes the positive value of Négritude in the ongoing process of African identity formation. As Rebaka observes, “Negritude, for Senghor, was […] an affirmation of African humanity that was perpetually open to revision and redefinition.”[4] Senghor, very much like Fanon, sought to present a more genuine humanism rather than the pseudo-(racist)-humanism of Europe. That is, Senghor believed that all cultures have something distinctive and important to contribute to humankind and thus promoted, as Rabaka notes, “cultural borrowing” (Senghor’s term).[5] However, Senghor is clear that whatever Négritude might appropriate from other cultures, including European culture, would be put to use to strengthen its own (African) tradition and values. Here the idea is to uphold the uniqueness of each culture or contributing group while respecting the values of others and seeking together to better humankind. Moreover, and here again we find common ground between Senghor and Fanon, Senghor’s version of Négritude in a more authentic humanistic key “breaks free from Sartre’s Hegelian dialectical progression and Manichean thinking, and openly acknowledges that ‘the’ world, as it actually exists, is not merely a series of binary oppositions between blacks and whites, or Africans and Europeans.”[6] Rather, the world, for Fanon and Senghor, consists of multiple choruses and rhythmic movements whose distinctive qualities have the potential to create a symphony—a sounding together; when each part allows the other to be heard, difference can translate into consonant harmony as the various parts contribute toward common goals advancing human flourishing. However, intolerable dissonance sounds when one part seeks to reduce all others to its own voice, a unison voice allowing no variation, improvisation, or syncopation.[7]

As Rabaka explains, Césaire’s prose-poem, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, was viewed by Fanon, Jean-Paul Sartre, André Breton, and numerous others as a revolutionary text.[8] During Césaire’s day, educated blacks in the West Indies did everything they could, given their oppressive colonial situation and French education, to deny their blackness; they saw themselves as white and identified with the French elite.  Thus, Césaire’s poem, calling blacks back, not only to their “Caribbean history and culture,” but to their “pre-colonial and anti-colonial indigenous, continental and diasporan African history and culture” scandalized both blacks and whites. In addition to his notion of “Négritude,” the second most important term in Césaire’s poem, Notebook, is his notion of “return.” Gaining a better understanding of these two conceptions will enable us to see the deconstructive as well as constructive aims of his project.

In an interview with René Depestre found at the end of Discourse on Colonialism, Césaire describes Négritude as “a resistance to the [French] politics of assimilation”;[9] it was the creation of a third way, a way beyond the false dichotomy of a civilized European world and a barbarian African world. For Césaire and others, the struggle for a positive African identity was a “struggle against alienation,” and “[t]hat struggle gave birth to Negritude.”[10] In light of the degrading, demeaning constructions of blackness internalized by Antilleans, Césaire recognized the need both to deracinate the negative Eurocentric depictions that the colonized had come to accept, and to recapture and reinvigorate the term nègre with positive, life-affirming, and culturally significant connotations. As Césaire explains, Antilleans had come to associate shame with the term nègre; consequently, they sought “all sorts of euphemism for Negro; […] That’s when we adopted the term nègre, as a term of defiance. […] There was in us a defiant will, and we found a violent affirmation in the words nègre, and negritude.”[11] Because blacks had been forced to live a white world, as Césaire puts it, in a “atmosphere of rejection,” they came to see themselves as inferior.[12] As a result, Césaire was convinced that blacks must create a new identity for themselves, an identity affirming the concrete reality and beauty of phenotypic differences: black skin must not be seen as a sign of negativity, ugliness, evil, and so forth. Along the same lines, black history must be reconceived, or rather discovered through black eyes and reinterpreted to the world, as “a history that contains certain cultural elements of great value.”[13] In short, Césaire states, “we asserted that our Negro heritage was worthy of respect, and that this heritage was not relegated to the past, that its values were values that could still make an important contribution to the world.”[14]




[1] Ahluwalia, Out of Africa, 58.

[2] Rabaka, Africana Critical Theory, 119. See also, Bouvier, “Aimé Césaire, la négritude et l’ouverture poétique,” where, among other things, Bouvier recounts Césaire’s formative student years in Paris and his initial meeting and subsequent friendship with Léopold Sédar Senghor.

[3] See Rabaka, Africana Critical Theory, chapter four, “Aimé Césaire and Leopold Senghor: Revolutionary Negritude and Radical New Negroes.”

[4] Ibid., 160.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. For a detailed analysis of Sartre’s appropriation of and departure from Hegelian philosophy, particularly with respect to Hegel’s notion of reciprocity, see Sekyi-Otu, Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience, esp. 62–72.

[7] Rabaka makes a similar claim when he says, “Negritude, like Du Bois and James’s Pan-African Marxism and, as we shall soon see, Fanon’s discourse on decolonization, was ultimately concerned with the greater good […] of humanity—that is, it was profoundly, nay radically, humanistic. In this sense […] it contributes and helps to highlight another important theme of the discourse of Africana critical theory: its revolutionary humanism, its deep and abiding concern […for] to use Fanon’s phrase, […] suffering humanity as a whole” (Africana Critical Theory, 160–61).

[8] Ibid., 119–20.

[9] Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 88.

[10] Ibid., 89.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 91.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 92.



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.).



In the previous post, I introduced Bakhtin’s notions of authoritative and internally persuasive discourse. In broad strokes, authoritative discourse, whether “religious, political, or moral,” comes from those holding positions of authority—“the word of a father, of adults and of teachers etc.”[1] In contrast, internally persuasive discourse in its most common variant “is denied all privilege, backed up by no authority at all, and is frequently not even acknowledged in society (not by public opinion, nor by scholarly norms, nor by criticism), not even in the legal code.”[2] The latter also cannot but arise out of the heteroglossia of authoritative discourses; yet, it can be reharmonized and reframed in a way that “pure” authoritative discourse cannot. The latter comes “with its authority already fused to it. The authoritative word is located in a distanced zone, organically connected with a past that is felt to be hierarchically higher. It is, so to speak, the word of the fathers.”[3]

Because its history as already-accepted authority precedes us, authoritative discourse is not simply one discourse among others. Rather, it resists egalitarian status and imposes itself as sovereign. Manifesting in the form of religious, political, or scientific dogma, “[i]t is given (it sounds) in lofty spheres, not those of familiar contact. Its language is a special (as it were, hieratic) language. […] It is akin to taboo, i.e., a name that must not be taken in vain.”[4] In other words, one ought not question authoritative discourse—to do so is itself a transgressive (in the negative sense) and a treasonous act, a sign of rebellion or perhaps backwardness. Not only does a certain rigidity and calcification characterize authoritative discourse, but likewise its “framing context” is immovable, frozen. “[I]t remains sharply demarcated, compact and inert: […] it is fully complete, it has but a single meaning, the letter is fully sufficient to the sense and calcifies it.”[5] One cannot improvise with authoritative discourse, nor can one reharmonize its melodies; it requires a unison voice; it demands complete replication with no key changes, modulations, or ornamentations. It calls for “unconditional allegiance” and “permits no play with the context framing it, no play with its borders, no gradual and flexible transitions, no spontaneously creative stylizing variants on it. […] one must either totally affirm it, or totally reject it.”[6]As my brief description indicates, authoritative discourse and internally persuasive discourse are polysemous and have (ongoing) dynamic dialogical relations with one another, pressuring, convincing, infusing and at times coinciding and merging harmoniously with one another.[7]

Since we are born into and inherit authoritative discourses, at least some of these discourses are experienced as internally persuasive even if unacknowledged. Here, the qualifier “internally persuasive” signifies a kind of unreflective embrace of authoritative discourse. However, when an individual actively in process of “ideological becoming” experiences an event or encounters a counter-discourse compelling him or her to question the authoritative discourse, a gap between these two kinds of discourse occurs. As Bakhtin explains, “consciousness awakens to independent ideological life precisely in a world of alien discourses surrounding it, and from which it cannot initially separate itself; the process of distinguishing between one’s own and another’s discourse […] is activated rather late in development.”[8]

Prior to an individual moving toward this more reflective mode of discourse discrimination and active appropriation, he or she first experiences a “separation between internally persuasive discourse and authoritarian enforced discourse.”[9] Because internally persuasive discourse is constituted from a cacophony of alien discourses, even when we shape a discourse of our own, that new discourse is of course never simply ours. Nonetheless, there is a productiveness and flexibility about internally persuasive discourse creating space for personal assimilation. It allows “new” words and discourses to emerge out of the discourses with which we are already familiar and within which we live; it manifests an openness, a dynamism fostering development and application “to new material, new conditions; it enters into interanimating relationships with new contexts. More than that, it enters into an intense interaction, a struggle with other internally persuasive discourses.”[10] In fact, according to Bakhtin, “[o]ur ideological development is just such an intense struggle within us for hegemony among various available verbal and ideological points of view, approaches, directions and values.”[11]

Lastly, in contrast with the rigidity of authoritative discourse both in terms of content and surrounding or framing context, internally persuasive discourse promotes an improvisatory ethos. One can reharmonize its words by re-orchestrating the framing context, extending its former boundaries, opening up its semantic fields, and developing its themes in conversation with contemporary concerns. The internally persuasive word is perpetually pregnant with “further creative life”; it continues as an unfinished symphony in which multiple composers and performers improvise on its themes, stretch its form, and refuse to allow a final note to sound. The essence of internally persuasive discourse is dynamic and inexhaustible, always yielding new insights as we “put it in a new situation in order to wrest new answers from it, […] and even wrest from it new words of its own (since another’s discourse, if productive, gives birth to a new word from us in response).”[12]


[1] Baktin, The Dialogic Imagination, 342.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 343.

[6] Ibid.

[7] For example, one can perceive the polysemous as well as the thoroughly historical character of Bakhtin’s notion of internally persuasive discourse in the following passage: “[t]he internally persuasive word is either a contemporary word, born in a zone of contact with unresolved contemporaneity, or else it is a word that has been reclaimed for contemporaneity; such a word relates to its descendents as well as to its contemporaries as if both were contemporaries” (ibid., 346).

[8] Ibid., 345.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 345–46

[11] Ibid., 346.

[12] Baktin, The Dialogic Imagination, 346.



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.