Title: 'Writing in the Spaces Left': Literacy as a Process of Becoming in the Narratives of Frederick Douglass



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Title: 'Writing in the Spaces Left': Literacy as a Process of Becoming in the Narratives of Frederick Douglass

Author(s): Lisa Sisco

Publication Details: American Transcendental Quarterly 9.3 (Sept. 1995): p195-227.

Source: Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Ed. Russel Whitaker. Vol. 141. Detroit: Gale, 2004. p195-227. From Literature Resource Center.

Document Type: Critical essay

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning


[(essay date September 1995) In the following essay, Sisco discusses Douglass's ambivalent feelings towards literacy, and his struggle to find an acceptable narrative voice in his works. Sisco also examines Douglass's search for a new identity in post-Civil War America.]
In a vague, sentimental way, we love books inordinately, even though we do not know how to read them, for we know that books are the gateway to the forbidden world. Any black man who can read a book is a hero to us. And we are joyful when we hear a black man speak like a book. The people who say how the world is run, who have fires in winter, who wear warm clothes, who get enough to eat, are the people who make books speak to them.--Richard Wright, Twelve Million Black Voices
Chapter VI of Frederick Douglass's 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, opens with a scene of literacy instruction: the young Douglass is being taught to read by his mistress Sophia Auld, but he is interrupted by his master. Hugh Auld warns his wife that it is:
unlawful as well as unsafe to teach a slave to read ... If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master--to do as he is told. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world ... 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.(274-5)
Auld's vehement efforts to deny access to literacy provide Douglass with a profound insight as to literacy's power in the eyes of his slavemaster. This scene of instruction is cut short, but Douglass has seen enough to remark: "I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty--to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement and I prized it highly. From that moment on, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom" (275).
Douglass's comments here seem pretty straightforward. He appears to be arguing that in the denial of literacy lay the "white man's power to enslave the black man"; that literacy was the "pathway from slavery to freedom." Indeed, an entire tradition of scholarship has explored the link between literacy and freedom in the narrative of the slave. Henry Louis Gates Jr., has thoroughly documented the origins of this relationship between literacy and freedom by showing that in the writings of "great" thinkers of the European Enlightenment--among them Kant, Hume, and Hegel--illiteracy was the basis for arguing that slaves were subhuman, since man's capacity for reason (as reflected in literacy) was the ultimate means of differentiating him from the beasts. For slaves like Douglass, becoming literate was the most powerful way to prove they were human. In Gates's words, literacy was not a skill, it "was a commodity [slaves] were forced to trade for their humanity" (The Slave's Narrative xxviii).
But while Douglass's words seem to provide clear evidence of this tradition of linking literacy with freedom in slave narratives, it is important to remember that these are supposedly the thoughts of a pre-literate slave (as represented by a highly literate ex-slave). In other words, as a character within the narrative Douglass argues most forcefully for literacy as the pathway to freedom before he is actually literate; before he has any personal experience with reading and writing; before he has even acquired the skills. He is attracted to an abstract ideal of literacy before he has any familiarity with its actual practice. Once he has acquired the skills and begins reading, Douglass's attitude is pulled by contradictory impulses. He is no longer sure literacy leads to freedom but instead feels his ability to read is a "curse" as well as a "blessing." In fact, when Douglass attempts to use his literacy to escape, by writing passes for himself and his friends, he is literally jailed, even further imprisoned by his belief that literacy alone can provide a pathway to freedom.
In this scene with Mrs. Auld, Douglass's strong desire to learn to read and write arises out of the fact that literacy is denied to him by Auld (and by laws in some southern states against teaching slaves to read or write), not because Douglass has any firsthand knowledge or experience of literacy's power to help him gain freedom at that point in the narrative. Douglass seems drawn to literacy because Auld's words indicate that it "would forever unfit him to be a slave," which is precisely what Douglass wants: to be recognized as a human being, unfit for slavery. Douglass understands that literacy can provide the power to re-define relationships of authority. He clearly states his desire to oppose his master Auld, from which emerges a desire for literacy:
What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire to learn.(275)
Douglass's primary sense of literacy's benefits comes from Auld's assessment of its power. In fact, Douglass claims that it was the vehemence with which Auld "impressed his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction that served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read" (275). In this pre-literate stage, Douglass accepts an ideology of literacy put forth by Auld, one which rests upon the binary oppositions of slave/master, freedom/enslavement, human/subhuman, literate/illiterate. 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. He appears to take great pleasure in simultaneously agreeing with and subverting Auld's assessment of literacy's power when he explains to his readers, echoing the words of his master, that his "Mistress, in teaching me the alphabet, had given me the inch, and no precaution could prevent me from taking the ell" (277).
In a sense, Douglass's response to Auld's understanding of literacy is what Mikhail Bakhtin characterizes as an individual's struggle with "authoritative discourse," which Bakhtin describes as the word which is "indissolubly fused with authority--or political power, an institution, or a person ... It is, so to speak, the word of the fathers. Its authority is already acknowledged in the past. It is a prior discourse ... It is akin to taboo" (342). Taboo is precisely what literacy is to the slave. It is literacy's embodiment of the authority of the white man and of the institution of slavery which Douglass both resists and embraces in this initial pre-literate stage.
I describe Douglass as being pre-literate in the above early scene because I want to differentiate his literacy in this initial stage--as a struggle with "authoritative discourse"--from later stages, in a developing consciousness of literacy which emerges throughout the narrative.1 Literacy is not a monolithic thing for Douglass; it is not simply a skill that he has or doesn't have. Instead Douglass's story shows us that, to borrow a way of thinking about literacy from Cathy Davidson, "literacy is a process, not a fixed point or a line of demarcation. 'Literateness' is a more useful term ... since it suggests a continuum (and a continuing process of education and self-education) between, say, rudimentary reading and elementary ciphering, on the one hand, and the sophisticated use of literacy for one's material, intellectual, and political advantage, on the other" (Revolution 60-61). The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave chronicles Douglass's process of maturing "literateness" which includes a continual reworking of the binary oppositions set up by the culture of slavery.
Bakhtin's discussion of the individual's struggle with language can help us to understand this process of becoming literate, of struggling with language. "Language" or, in the case of Douglass, literacy "is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker's intention; it is populated--overpopulated--with the intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one's own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process" (294). It is this process of increasing "literateness," of forcing literacy to submit to the intentions and experiences of the slave, which Douglass dramatizes throughout the narrative. Bakhtin describes this as an "ideological process of becoming," which is characterized by a sharp gap between Auld's "authoritative discourse" and Douglass's "internally persuasive discourse." Bakhtin describes internally persuasive discourse as language "that is denied all privilege, backed up by no authority at all and is frequently not even acknowledged in society ... not even in the legal code" (342). Certainly this definition fits slave literacy--without privilege, denied by law, unacknowledged in society. For Bakhtin, "the struggle and dialogic interrelationship of these categories of ideological discourse are what usually determine the history of an individual ideological consciousness" (342). Similarly, for Douglass, his narrative dramatizes the process by which he reconfigures the authoritative discourse of the institution of slavery. In this "process of becoming," as I call it, Douglass begins by internalizing slavery's ideology of literacy, but he ultimately transforms that authoritative discourse with the internally persuasive voice of slave experience and African spirituality.
Once he learns to read, Douglass's conceptions of his own literacy become more complex, as evident in his paradoxical response to reading a dialogue between slave and master in "The Columbian Orator" which "resulted in the voluntary emancipation of the slave by his master" (279) and a speech by Sheridan about Catholic emancipation which was "a bold denunciation of slavery and a powerful vindication of human right" (278). Douglass explains that this
reading enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery, but while [it] relieved me of one difficulty, [it] brought on another more painful. The more I read, the more I was led to detest my enslavers ... As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing [emphasis added]. It had given me a new view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It had opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow slaves for their stupidity. The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness.(279)
Houston Baker argues that "Douglass grasps language in a Promethean act of will but leaves unexamined its potentially devastating effects" ("Autobiographical Acts" 251). But Douglass's words here do account for literacy's many paradoxes, including its capacity to simultaneously empower and imprison, to "bless" and to "curse." Ironically, at the very same moment that Douglass's position in the "horrible pit" "enables" him to understand his enslaved condition, it gives no "remedy" to his pain. The experience of reading provides Douglass with the language to argue on an intellectual and moral basis against slavery, but those arguments are useless in freeing him from his own horrible reality. Even if he could present the arguments against slavery to master Auld, it would not change his identity as a slave. (What ultimately does change his reality as a slave, as I will argue below, is Douglass's ability to redefine literacy by infusing the written word with the power of the spirit.) At this moment, Douglass realizes that ironically, literacy has only further enslaved him, has come to "torment [his] soul to unutterable anguish" (288) by providing him with terrifying knowledge of his condition but not physical freedom. His experience of reading fulfilled Auld's promise that learning "would make [the slave] discontented and unhappy" (275). Douglass explains that once he learned to read "freedom now appeared to disappear no more forever. It 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 often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead" (279).
Nearly paralyzed by this initial reading experience, Douglass is unsure about what literacy can offer the slave beyond a tormenting knowledge of freedom. His experience of reading both subverts and reinforces his sense of the freedom/enslavement dichotomy. But even though his experience with literacy is difficult, that doesn't interfere with the fact that Douglass still wants to read and to learn to write, nor with the fact that these desires are always connected with a search for freedom from bondage. Upon learning about abolition, Douglass focuses on his desire to escape to the North and believes that being able to write his own pass will lead him to freedom. His dramatization of learning to write, against the opposition of his master, shows Douglass developing an increasingly sophisticated understanding of literacy, which permeates beyond Auld's binary oppositions. Chapter VII's boatyard scene, discussed below, which dramatizes Douglass's process of learning to read, 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. Douglass comes to understand a "heteroglossia" of literacy, which, in Bakhtin's words
enters a dialogically agitated and tension filled environment of alien words, value judgments and accents, weaves in and out of complex interrelationships, merges with some, recoils from others, intersects with yet a third group ... brush[es] up against thousands of living dialogic threads woven by socio-ideological consciousness around the given object of an utterance; it cannot fail to become an active participant in the social dialogue.(276)
Douglass's ability to survive in a slave system which rests on the many incompatible truths of slave and master prepares him to ultimately accept literacy's paradoxes, to live and even thrive amid a "tension-filled environment" full of a seemingly endless multiplicity of truths about literacy co-existing.
It is this multiplicity of shifting possibilities for literateness which seems unacknowledged in our histories and theories of the subject. Much that has been written about literacy and its role in the slave narrative seems intent on arguing in the terms of Auld's binary oppositions, claiming that literacy either does or doesn't represent freedom. Scholars qualify literacy discussions to a particular time and place, since the meaning and ideology of literacy shift among cultures. But Frederick Douglass's narrative tells us that for the slave, so many opposing ideologies and cultures of literacy existed simultaneously in antebellum America, that it is impossible to permanently sort them out in any meaningful way. At the very moment one makes the claim that literacy leads to freedom for the slave, evidence of literacy's role in the further enslavement of blacks becomes obvious, as Douglass's experiences repeatedly show us. Douglass's response to this multiplicity of meanings is to constantly shift his perspective on literacy, to melt into the heteroglossia, to maneuver his point of view both inside and "outside the circle" of southern culture, and to literally and metaphorically acquire his literacy from a hidden position in the margins where he takes advantage of literacy's paradoxical potentials. Douglass's most important insight is that the binary oppositions of literacy set up by the culture of slavery are both true and false simultaneously; he then sets out to take advantage of that insight.
Douglass refers to two important moments of liminality in the narrative, that of being "outside the circle" of the slave songs and of writing "in the spaces left" of his young master's copying book. These liminal points, one of reading or interpretation and one of writing, serve as spatial metaphors for the fluidity of Douglass's process of defining and/or transcending the meaning of literacy in slave culture. William L. Andrews has discussed the issue of liminality in Afro-American fiction, explaining that interstitial autobiographers "depict themselves as 'betwixt and between' standard identifying classifications and norms ... In the cracks and crevices of the social hierarchy, the interstitial figure creates his own fluid status and unlikely freedom ... Such figures mediate and often reverse the binary oppositions between the hierarchical states to which they are marginal" (To Tell 173). The resulting position of liminality, explains Andrews, acts as "a condition of psycholiterary freedom" (179). Andrews believes that the autobiographical act itself allows escaped slaves to "affirm their liminality as a 'potentializing' phase in which indeterminacy signifies a host of possibilities, not simply a loss of center" (202).2 Chapter VII details the drama of learning to write, a drama involving literal and metaphorical levels of accommodation, subterfuge, antagonism, direct imitation, and ultimately self-insertion in the margins of the "authoritative discourse" of a southern ideology of literacy. Douglass moves quite fluidly among these different postures, each of which embraces an alternative discourse of literacy.
In a rather deconstructive insight, Frederick Douglass 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. Whites using literacy for one purpose are at that very moment ignoring all sorts of other possibilities. As illustrated in the discussion that follows, Douglass uses this knowledge to his advantage by constantly practicing a kind of sleight of hand (or trickery) reminiscent of African trickster tales. For example, he takes letters used by whites for solely utilitarian purpose (to identify pieces of wood in a boatyard) and transforms that use of literacy into a sophisticated political act. Douglass knows that literacy is a technology by which one group asserts control or status over another, so he exploits that capacity of literacy when antagonizing white boys, who only see in his taunts a way to use literacy to show their superiority over Douglass. As I will show, the white boys are incapable at that moment of seeing into "the spaces left," which is why Douglass is successful in learning from them. He turns moments of literacy's potential oppression into moments of control and self-education; "in the spaces left" by the white boys' efforts to prove their superiority is the unseen opportunity for Douglass to learn to write. In this more sophisticated stage of his literacy education, Douglass constantly shifts the meanings of the literacy situation, setting up for his white enslavers a utilitarian use of literacy and working in the margins for his own benefits. The scenes dramatizing Douglass's learning to write in Chapter VII are interstitial representations of literacy which shift according to the circumstances.
Significantly, Douglass's scenes of literacy acquisition also occur on geographical borderlands, between north and south, between land and sea, in the port of Baltimore. "The idea as to how I might learn to write," he says, "was suggested to me by being in Durgin and Bailey's shipyard" (280). Moreover, the ships represent hope and possibility for Douglass because they provide a potential means of escape from the South, yet ships were also used to facilitate the slave trade. In addition, the shipyard is the place Douglass later returns to in the narrative when he works as a caulker, calling it his "school." This parallel acquisition of literacy and the learning of a marketable skill in the boatyard also implies a correlation between literacy and economic empowerment for Douglass. Douglass is by no means free from slavery in the boatyard, but he is separated from the relative oppression of southern plantation culture and he does earn an income while working among "many ... black carpenters [who] were freemen" (312). He explains his manner of learning to write as follows:
[T]he ship carpenters, after hewing, and getting a piece of timber ready for use, write on the timber the name of that part of the ship for which it was intended. When a piece of timber was intended for the starboard side, it would be marked thus--"S." A piece for the larboard side forward, would be marked thus--"L.F." When a piece was for starboard side forward, it would be marked thus--"S.F." For larboard aft, it would be marked thus--"L.A." For starboard aft, it would be marked thus--"S.A." I soon learned the names of these letters and for what they were intended when placed on a piece of timber in the shipyard. I immediately commenced copying them, and in a short time, was able to make the four letters named.(280-1)
On the body of ships which both represent freedom and facilitate slavery, literacy is used by shipbuilders for a purely utilitarian purpose, to identify ship parts. But Frederick Douglass sees "in the spaces" left by this functional use of literacy, the opportunity to transform the shipyard into a scene of self-education and an act of political resistance. The white men are unaware of the way that Douglass, who has been denied access to letters, reconfigures this experience of literacy for his own benefit while simultaneously pretending to blithely accept literacy's benign utilitarian capacity.
In the second stage of this scene of learning to write, Douglass takes advantage of the antagonism whites feel for him as a slave. He understands the way that literacy, as a form of knowledge, signals a kind of mental superiority for whites over illiterate blacks. He exploits the implications of this superiority by turning literacy into a competition designed to feed the ego of "any white boy who [he] knew could write" (281). Douglass explains:
I would tell [the white boy] I could write as well as he. The next word would be, "I don't believe you. Let me see you try it." I would then make the letters which I had been so fortunate as to learn, and ask him to beat that. In this way I got a good many lessons in writing, which it is quite possible I should never have gotten in any other way.(281)
What masquerades as a literacy competition is actually a lesson in literacy, with the white boy entirely unaware of his role as teacher. Douglass is successful because he has the ability to identify white control of literacy as oppressive and to simultaneously use that desire for control as the white boy's Achilles' heel. He subverts the ethic of competition essential to the prevailing ideology of white manhood and to the growth of capitalism. This activity is akin to stealing, but really Douglass does not steal his knowledge of letters from his white teachers; they are simply unaware of the value of what they freely give to him. He is handed an education by those who, at that moment, see literacy only in a narrow framework of competition--entirely unrelated to the passing on of knowledge.
All of these scenes of literacy acquisition are performed outside of the Auld household, in the open air free from the institutional space of slavery and the white accouterments of literacy. "During this time, my copy-book was the board fence, brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk. With these, I mainly learned how to write" (281). Douglass thus emerges as a literate individual in the marginal spaces between the world sanctioned by slavery and an alternative space of his own making free from its oppressive limitations. His moments of literacy in the boatyard and in the neighborhood are physically free from the hierarchy of slavery inside the Auld household (where he was initially admonished from acquiring literacy) and, because always shifting into the "spaces left," also metaphorically free from the slaveholder's particular ideology of literacy. These 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. This conception of language is especially relevant to writers like Douglass, who are caught between conflicting worlds. W. E. B. Dubois's conception of the "double consciousness" experienced by African-Americans is similar to Bakhtin's idea about language.



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