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.

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.).


Frederick Douglass on Imagining Otherwise

Below is Frederick Douglass’s elegant description of how he often looked across the Chesapeake Bay, which was full of sailboats, and imagined that he was sailing away to live as a freeman.Frederick Douglass

Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition.  I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer’s Sabbath, stood all alone upon the lofty banks of that noble bay, and traced, with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving off to the mighty ocean.  The sight of these always affected me powerfully…with no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul’s complaint… ‘You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip!  You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron!  O that I were free!  O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing!  Alas! Betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll.  Go on, go on.  O that I could also go!  Could I but swim!  If I could fly!  O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute!  The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance.  I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery.  O God, save me!  God, deliver me!  Let me be free!  Is there any God?  Why am I a slave?[1]


[1] Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave / My Bondage and My Freedom / Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.  Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr.  New York:  Library of America, 1994, p. 59.

Frederick Douglass and the Master/Slave Dialectic

In Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, he describes his first six months with “master” Covey, a well-known “slave-breaker” to whom he had been sent due to his so-called “disciplinary” issues.  Douglass was about sixteen years old during his stay with Covey, and in spite of significant obstacles, had learned to read.  Though his literacy opened up new worlds for him and allowed him to express himself and even to know himself more profoundly, it also brought about a deep sense of loss—a realization of all that he could have been had he been a (white) freeman rather than a (black) slave.  In other words, Douglass’s literacy indeed produced in him a kind of freedom within the oppressive, racialized society in which he lived, but it wasn’t sufficient—after all under the white gaze, no matter how educated he became, he remained a mere thing, property, chattel.  The insufficiency of this “inner” freedom is seen in Douglass’s famous account of his fight with Covey.Frederick Douglass

When Douglass’s former owner, Thomas Auld, could no longer deal with Douglass, he sent him to Covey.  Douglass describes his time with Covey as follows:  “the first six months, of that year … scarce a week passed without his whipping me.  I was seldom free from a sore back” (p. 56).[1] He then recounts how Covey worked him day and night and in all weather conditions and how at last Covey’s “discipline” broke him.

I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me.  Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me.  I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute! (p. 58).

Although Douglass had attained a level of freedom through literacy—an accomplishment that was itself an “argument” against the white hegemonic discourse which claimed that blacks were subhuman, incapable of “higher” rational reflection, and thus in need of (white) masters—and thus had within himself moved from an animal-like existence to a more human existence, he as an embodied being was still in bonds and subject to the (irrational) whims of  white society.  In fact, Douglass indicates in the passage above, that Covey’s “disciplinary regime” (i.e. torture and inhumane work routines) transformed him back into a beast-like existence.

After one particularly brutal and near-death beating at the hands of Covey, Douglass decides to flee.  He returns to his former owner, Mr. Auld, who rather mercilessly commands him to go back to Covey.  As Douglass’s “dark night of slavery” continues, he contemplates suicide, living in the woods until he eventually dies for lack of food etc., or returning to Covey.  At last he decides to go back to Covey’s plantation, knowing that a bloody beating awaits him.  As Douglass is climbing over a fence to enter Covey’s field, Covey runs out to meet him with whip in hand.  Douglass manages to escape again and hides in the woods where he meets another slave named Sandy.  He and Sandy discuss his situation, and Sandy convinces him that he must return to Covey’s house.  However, before Douglass departs, Sandy gives Douglass a root with supposed magical, protective powers.  Sandy claims that if Douglass carries this root on his ride side, Covey will not come near him.  Douglass is highly skeptical but takes the root to please Sandy.  Douglass heads out a second time, this time returning on Easter Sunday.  Once Douglass enters his master’s property, he passed Covey, who, as a good Southern “Christian” is on his way to church.  To Douglass’s surprise, Covey interacts positively with him, which makes Douglass think that there might be something to Sandy’s root.  However, Monday is a different story; with Monday, we’re back to business as usual.  While laboring that morning in a stable, Douglass catches sight of Covey approaching with a long rope in hand.  Covey tackles Douglass and attempts to bind him with the rope.  Rather than remain a docile slave, Douglass decides to resist and fights back.  “At this moment—from whence came the spirit I don’t know—I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose” (p. 64).  Douglass’s response took Covey by surprise, and Douglass could see for the first time fear in Covey’s eyes.  The two struggled for over two hours until Covey finally gave up.

If we bring Douglass’s narrative (as a hermeneutical “tool”) into conversation with Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, some rather interesting insights surface.  After Douglass’s act of physical resistance or more strongly put, his act of violence, Covey never again physically abuses Douglass.  Here contra Hegel’s account of the docile slave who cared more for his life than his freedom, the slave is willing to risk his life for freedom.  Douglass himself interpreted the fight with Covey as a decisive moment in his struggle for freedom.

The battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave.  It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood.  It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free.  The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself.  He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery.  I felt as I never felt before.  It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom.  My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.  I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me (p. 65).

Here it seems that something beyond intellectual freedom (i.e. literacy and what I’ve called “inner freedom”) was required for Douglass’s “resurrection.”  As an embodied, political being, Douglass’s experience of freedom was necessarily limited so long as Covey and the socio-political slavery apparatus had dominion over his body.  According to Douglass’s account, some kind of physical resistance or force was needed not only for his own sense of freedom but also so that Covey might recognize him as an Other with volitional and rational faculties capable of producing deliberate and purposeful acts of resistance.    (Though my knowledge of Marx is quite limited, I suppose that a Marxist would be delighted with this reading).  My final point is to highlight the fact that in Douglass’s narrative, the slave does not gain freedom or bring about a reversal in the master/slave relationship through his labor (The Marxist would not, however, find this point delightful). To the contrary, Douglass says that the excruciating labor he endured under Covey’s supervision crushed his spirit—“ I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!” (p. 58).   Although acquiring skills through labor does not bring about a reversal in the master/slave relationship, the master’s identity is (as Hegel claims) dialectically related to the slave’s.  How so?  Covey chooses not turn Douglass in for a public “whipping.”  Douglass’s explanation for Covey’s seemingly inexplicable decision is that Covey’s reputation as a slave-breaker was on the line.  He failed to break Douglass, and to turn Douglass in would be to admit that failure and lose his reputation. In short, Douglass worked within the power mechanisms of an oppressive slave society, and his resistance proved successful on multiple counts.  Power relations, as Foucault emphasizes, are not merely oppressive.  Rather, when power relations obtain, genuine resistance is possible.


[1] Douglass Autobiographies, ed. by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York:  The Library of America, 1994.