frederick douglass

No Freedom Without Representation. No Representation Without Reading.

A learner is one who walks the paths to knowledge. Knowledge leads to freedom. Take, for example, Frederick Douglass.1

While still a slave Douglass learned to read and write, which he accomplished by cajoling some white boys to tutor him without knowing that’s what they were doing. Now, Douglass had suffered the horrors and indignities of slavery before becoming literate, but it was only after he began reading that he became fully conscious of just how intolerable his condition was, and why it was intolerable. In other words, he knew, before learning to read, that he was a slave, but he only knew it as a matter of fact. When as a child, cowering in a closet, he inadvertently witnessed the whipping of his aunt, he experienced shock and terror, anticipating that the leather would be turned against him in due course. This and multiple other devastating events, left unreflected upon in illiteracy, might very well have made of Douglass’s whole life one long, unending trauma. His autobiographical Narrative, however, transformed these horrors into history, into a perspective on human behavior and relations, that continues to serve as a moral touchstone in our civilization.

It was only after learning to read that Douglass was able, while in the midst of experiencing, to represent his experiences to himself, because the very acts of both writing and reading are acts of representation. Writing and reading externalize words from human speech. Words on a page are objective containers of sentences that were originally thought by a subjective author. Printed words stand outside and apart from the subject-writer and the subject-reader. When Douglass learned his letters, then his alphabet, then the sentences of his appropriated composition book, he developed his brain in such a way as to be able to symbolize inner experiences outside of himself. Always before, when illiterate, he’d felt the freezing cold through a whole winter with only a single coarse, knee-length shirt and no pants, shoes, or jacket; his bones felt that. But those winters were not part of any narrative, in the most fundamental sense, until he was able to step outside of his experiences and see himself in them by representing the events of his life to himself in language.

Douglass describes, upon learning to read, how he came to understand the implications of what being a slave meant. Before reading, slavery was the epitome of misery. But it wasn’t until after reading that slavery became, in Douglass’s mind and heart, repugnant to moral conscience and loathsome in all human feeling. The realization of this exacted a heavy toll. Douglass was now burdened not only by his condition but also by an acute consciousness of his condition. He fell into a depression. After a climactic, revolutionary fistfight with an especially vicious master, Douglass might have continued as a slave, sullen and belligerent as he had become at that point in his life, but he had gained something from reading that would change the course of his reality: concepts.

Slavery was no longer the de facto necessary condition of Frederick Douglass’s existence, as it had been when the main thing he knew about himself was that he was owned by someone else. But now he had developed the understanding, reading the Columbian Orator, that slavery was unnecessary, that it was imposed, and that it must be stopped, beginning with his own emancipation. For Douglass, freedom began as a fresh concept. His knowledge of the ideas of slavery and freedom enabled him, first of all, to imagine a different life for himself and for others suffering the same fate. He was then able to judge what was right. And he was empowered thus to act in accordance with his convictions.

Frederick Douglass escaped and became a free citizen. He went on to become an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln, a U.S. marshall, a diplomat, an influential public speaker, a newspaper publisher, and author of three autobiographical accounts of his life. These are all very impressive lines on a resume, but what impresses me most about Douglass’s work—apart from his writings, which are of incalculable value to successive generations—were his active support of abolition and of women’s rights. The concepts he learned did not—do not—only apply within a single cause. His knowledge transcended the boundaries of his original political affiliations. What was right and worth doing were realms larger than himself, larger than his personal experiences. Learning and knowledge connected Douglass with, and called him to act in, the world beyond the self.


  1. Douglass’s birthday anniversary is February 17th, the occasion of this post. 

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