Americans in the nineteenth century mapped the wilderness without – from 1803’s Louisiana Purchase to 1848, the continental United States was filled in. But they were as interested in the voice within, defining the self. The most requested lecture by Frederick Douglass was “Self Made Men”. In his Making the American Self, David Walker Howe contends that “Frederick Douglass was arguably the most thoroughly self-constructed person in the whole nineteenth century. He not only made his own identity, he made his own legend. . . Self-definition was a life-long process” (149). That process is the subject of his Narrative (Monadnock version), which is structured both in style and content by his early reading.
I’ve long wondered how welcome his vision would be in some school rooms – a sturdy self-reliance that has more echoes of Victoria than of Emerson. I love teaching its round sentences, noting its tight arguments, its specific details of slave life. Most of all, though, I teach it as an explicit and powerful “coming to consciousness.” He traces a path many autobiographers take but few as introspectively. And I find his values attractive – consciousness reached through reading, culture as aid. His growth is classic – a youth finds himself (and his relation to certain traditional values) in the city; he has much more in common with Franklin than Rousseau.
Well, Kevin Williamson describes what happened in one school: Jada Williams, an eighth grader at a public school in Rochester, New York read Douglass. He apparently had some of the same effect on her that Sheridan’s speeches had well over a century before on the young Douglass:
Coming across the famous passage in which Douglass quotes the slavemaster Auld, Miss Williams was startled by the words: “If you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there will be no keeping him. It will forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.” The situation seemed to her familiar, and[she then wrote] her essay . . . a blistering indictment of the failures of the largely white faculty of her school: ‘When I find myself sitting in a crowded classroom where no real instruction is taking place I can say history does repeat itself.’
The essay lands her in trouble – her teacher shares it with other teachers; they (and their union) support one another, turning on Ms. Williams. Well, tar and feathers, Williamson says. To appreciate how well Ms. Williams understood Douglass, let’s look at the Narrative. Human nature – his and others, its universality – is Douglass’s topic. And that slavery stunts. Influenced by the great liberal thinkers of the 18th century, his way is reasoned as often as felt. As Howe observes, “What he wanted was to develop his own potential to the fullest, demonstrating thereby the falsehood of racism” (150) Douglass’s “Narrative”, published in 1845, is aimed at the north – I, having entered the gate of hell into slavery, have now come to stand before you as witness to the obdurate heart and bloody fields, where pain and privation of the body are matched by smothering of the consciousness.
Teaching himself to read, he happened on The Columbian Orator. Published in 1797, this anthology of speeches and poems has the sonorous and balanced style of that period – rich in tropes and magisterial in voice. That reasoned style conveyed a reasoned argument, both of which he made his own. And those were the arguments of our founders, of late eighteenth century principles.
Every opportunity I got, I used to read this book. . . . I found in it a dialogue between a master and his slave. . . . the whole argument in behalf of slavery was brought forward by the master, all of which was disposed of by the slave. The slave was made to say some very smart as well as impressive things in reply to his master — things which had the desired though unexpected effect; for the conversation resulted in the voluntary emancipation of the slave on the part of the master.
He also “met with one of Sheridan’s mighty speeches on and in behalf of Catholic emancipation. These were choice documents to me. I read them over and over again with unabated interest. They gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance.” And he drew from them conclusions that would govern his life: “the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder” and “a bold denunciation of slavery, and a powerful vindication of human rights.” Douglass analyzes his youthful response: “The reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery; but while they relieved me of one difficulty, they brought on another even more painful than the one of which I was relieved. The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers.”
Of course, restlessness accompanies learning. Our sense of our separate self is bought by a knowledge of our inevitable isolation. In his first paragraphs, Douglass contrasts the individuality with which we know our birthdate (a date that he, as a slave, was never to know) and the union with nature that comes from no more specific sense of the self’s entrance than it was at planting time or reaping time. Unconsciousness requires illiteracy – that is an old story. We exchange comfort for insight. Douglass carefully analyzes how: what he felt, what he did. His growing sense of the tragic nature of man intensifies and Douglas despairs: “In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast. I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own. Anything, no matter what, to get rid of thinking!”
Perhaps the remarkable punishments of the Rochester school may arise from the uneasy identification with Sophia Auld, Douglass’s mistress, who had first taught him his letters. Slave owning turns her from angelic to demonic. But she had opened Pandora’s box: as she becomes more demonic, his desire to read intensifies:
Nothing seemed to make her more angry than to see me with a newspaper. She seemed to think that here lay the danger. I have had her rush at me with a face made all up of fury, and snatch from me a newspaper, in a manner that fully revealed her apprehension. She was an apt woman; and a little experience soon demonstrated, to her satisfaction, that education and slavery were incompatible with each other.
So the intellectual milieu that produced the founders did its work, again, fifty years later, as Douglass read. And, Douglass did his work, a hundred and fifty years later, as Jada Williams read. She, too, sees reading as liberating; she sees we become ourselves sustained by an understanding of those ideas that were clothed in the rhetoric of 1797 for Douglass and of 1845 for her; these words strengthen the individual, the at-once-unique-but-also-representative I, reinforcing the sound of the voice within.
But it is not only that they did, indeed, read. It was what they read. That thinking – that late eighteenth century, liberal, open marketplace thinking – that was important, too. It wasn’t just that Douglass read but that he read about individual rights and saw such discussions in the form of arguments before the Romans and in British Parliament, on “the dignity of human nature” and the manumission of slaves. And it wasn’t just that Williams read, but that she read of the growth in self-awareness.
Most poignant is the fact Douglass, himself, after escaping north via the Underground Railroad, lived in Rochester for 25 years. This is proudly noted by the website for the Underground Railroad – Heritage Trail.
Ms. Williams reads her essay. (Of course, it would be helpful if she had been taught to distinguish between an autobiography and a novel – but her conclusions are those we would like any eighth grader to reach.) She was then given “The Spirit of Freedom Award” from the Frederick Douglass Foundation of New York.