“Read our literary ancestors. It is the quintessential path to becoming a better writer.”
–Jewell Parker Rhodes
Until a couple years ago, I was never a fan of reading (or writing) nonfiction. It bore me. This is in part due to my lack of interaction with engaging nonfiction, but mostly due to my lack of an open-minded reading perspective. Falling in love with African American literature helped gauge my perspective of nonfiction in a more positive direction, and I owe much of this to the writings of Frederick Douglass.
I was reading Douglass’s writings around the same time I was introduced to other remarkable autobiographies from enslaved people, like Harriet Jacobs (whose work I’ll be revisiting through Literary Ancestors soon). It was also the time when my perspective of slave narratives dismissed them as something the world had heard, read, and seen enough of—until I read them first hand and realized there was so much I hadn’t heard, read, or seen. And I realized then that if I hadn’t, there was an entire world outside of the classroom I was in who never had and probably never would.
Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave is remarkable for me for two fundamental reasons. First, I attribute this work of nonfiction as one of three primary narratives that served in helping me fully understand the true barbaric nature of American chattel slavery. Part of why I felt like we’d experienced the stories of enslaved people enough was because there was so much I didn’t know that I didn’t know. I think this in and of itself sounds odd, maybe even a bit contradictory—but there were so many things I was unaware of that enslaved Africans and African Americans endured. This mere fact is somewhat shameful, especially in considering how widely known and respected Douglass is as an American scholar. There were grievances included in his narrative that simply made my draw drop, having, even at over 20 years old, just learned that it is a part of real history. But, I’ll explore this further in a few weeks.
The second and main reason Douglass’s autobiography is so remarkable for me is because of the connection it draws to literacy. As always, when discussing a work of literature, I never want to give too much away and spoil the reading for those who are interested. However, when Douglass recalls events of the earlier years of his life, he discusses his journey to learning how to read.
As a young child, Douglass began receiving reading and writing lessons from his mistress (the wife of his master/owner—I really hate having to use such terms). Shortly after these lessons began, this mistress was reprimanded by her husband in front of Douglass, explaining that if she taught someone like Douglass to read, it would “forever unfit him to be a slave.” He further explained that Doulgass would become “unmanageable” (you can find this section in chapter six of the narrative).
As expected, Douglass’s reading and writing lessons stopped here—but he describes how in that moment, he “understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.” For him, that pathway was fighting for his literacy. The argument imposed by Douglass’s master ignited a deeper fire in himself to learn, and so even without a teacher, Douglass relied on witty and sometimes dangerous means to teach himself to read.
Reading was his pathway to freedom, and something about this shakes me to my core in the most profound way possible. Douglass didn’t stop at himself, either. After he’d taught himself to read, at the risk of everything between extreme beatings and even death, Douglass, still an enslaved man, started a sabbath school to teach other enslaved people to read and write. In chapter ten, he discusses his success in creating within them a strong desire to learn to read.
I’ve always loved reading and writing, but Douglass’s journey makes my relationship with these “pastimes,” and the possibilities of being an educator, so much more meaningful. There’s an ancestral connection—and importance—to literacy. To consider the way the simple act of learning or teaching a Black person to read could have resulted in death, reading and passing along the stories of people of Color becomes so much deeper for me.
And for this, I’m grateful to Douglass for his journey and his will to learn and share what he’d learned with others.