Throughout African- American history, the will to power, the will to freedom, the will to attain validation as a human being (in a world where the Black man is demonized and given less than animal status) has manifested as the will to literacy. Many a well known man has, after the acquisition of wisdom, gone to move his people out of the darkness and ignorance of physical and, more importantly, mental slavery, from Frederick Douglass himself to Malcolm X and even the Biblical King Solomon. Douglass’ narrative, telling the story of the will to literacy, works several ways. In its style and almost oratory prose—which makes sense as Douglass was a spirited speaker—the narrative can function as a most moving and persuasive piece of abolitionist propaganda. In fact, his narrative started a new wave of interest in other slave accounts which soon were hotly sought after for publication. It can also be seen, in a more limited sense, as a coming-of-age story or a journey to manhood. Truly, one can read Douglass’ narrative and clearly see the arc of his story that shows the progression of a boy, in ignorance, to a man that’s been illuminated with the knowledge of self. It almost seems as if the Frederick Douglass as he was before learning to read and write, and the Douglass as he was before running away to freedom, is a different man completely from the Douglass we know more famously—Douglass the great orator, the great Black abolitionist—and the story seems a weirdly Dickens-ian Tale of Two Douglass’s. His heroic journey to the other side can be filed along with other stories of similar victories, though that is not say his journey is necessarily an archetypal one—because an archetype lends itself to the status of celebrity and, thus, has an inherent inclination towards being turned into parody and cliché. The story is probably more accurately and respectively viewed as a near allegory. With many clever and inspiring allusions to biblical figures, Douglass either knowingly or unknowingly places himself in the category with other longsuffering men of God’s (or the gods’) choosing who made it through and out of the depths of a kind of hell to ascend to glory and become a leader for other generations. Again, we can see Douglass as we see Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Huey Newton, and Job, Moses, and David of the Bible—men of sorrows, condemned for their convictions, and tortured with knowledge.
As an allegorical tale, one can read Douglass’s narrative and never strain too hard to be able to see Mr. Covey as the devil. The same devil who tries Job by piling upon him unjust and undeserved suffering upon suffering. And the same devil that tempted a starving Jesus upon the mountain. The devil, that cunning serpent who, having been an angel once, knows God’s word better than even man does, seeks always to tempt and break the righteous man, God’s chosen, by twisting and misinterpreting religion to cause confusion in the mind, as we see he has done to Adam, to Solomon, to King David, the psalmist, and attempted to do to the faithful Job and the son Jesus. Mr. Covey is painted as the devil in the narrative whose forte Douglass says “is in his power to deceive”, and whose life “was devoted to planning and perpetrating the grossest deceptions. Every thing he possessed in the shape of learning or religion, he made conform to his disposition to deceive. He seemed to think himself equal to deceiving the Almighty (Douglass, 82).” Mr. Covey succeeds in breaking Douglass, who goes on to lament his tribulation like Job—the editor of the Bedford/St. Martin’s second edition of Douglass’s Narrative, David W. Blight, even points out an allusion to Job 7:11 and Job 10:1 made by Douglass who envies the freedom of the sails of ships on the Bay, cursed with the knowledge that he should have the same freedom but doesn’t.
If at one time of my life…I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during…my stay with Mr. Covey. We were worked in all weathers…work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night…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 dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute! (83)
Despite this, the reader is glad to know that Douglass has the victory over Covey in becomes, again, a man in the battle that proves to be his test of character, like any other major epic battle man has cherished in myth and legend.
In Psalm 59, King David cries out in the midst of his trouble:
Deliver me from mine enemies, O my God:
Defend me from them that rise up against me.
Deliver me from the workers of iniquity;
And save me from bloody men.
For lo, they lie in wait for my soul:
The mighty are gathered against me;
Not for my transgression, nor for my sin, O Lord.
They run and prepare themselves without my fault:
Awake to help me, and behold. (Zondervan Study Bible, Psalms 59:1-4)
Finally, his pain that comes with growth and understanding, Douglass makes his narrative mirror slightly the Biblical psalms of David, in that it chronicles the suffering of the innocent slaves under white oppression and, in that suffering, the strength of faith, whether in God or education, for deliverance. In the Zondervan study edition of the King James Version of the Bible, an editorial note introducing and summarizing the Book of Psalms says, “When in the Psalms righteous sufferers—who are ‘righteous’ because they are innocent, not having wronged or provoked their adversaries, and because they are among the ‘humble’ (or ‘poor’) who trust in the Lord—cry out to God in their distress, they give voice to the sufferings of God’s servants in a hostile and evil world. The cries became the prayers of God’s oppressed ‘saints’…(Barker, 742). The psalms, which were generally songs of thanks and praise for deliverance and mercies seen and unseen, Douglass seems to liken the slave songs to as he writes:
I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness [in their condition]. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. (Douglass, 52)
In Douglass’s world (and continuing in the present world), the white man has long devised to keep Blacks illiterate, counting it dangerous that (gasp) a slave should learn that he has human rights afforded him by God and able to be threatened by no man. Douglass gives his account of having had his mistress teach him to read. His master, her husband forbade it, saying, “that it was awful, 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 known nothing but to obey his master…Learning would spoil [him]… If you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him (63).’” Later, when Douglass has spent time learning to read in the city of Baltimore among the urchins of the street, his master finds that “my city life, he said, had had a very pernicious effect upon me. It had almost ruined me for every good purpose, and fitted me for every thing which was bad (79).” The white man knew as well as anyone that an unlearned man has no will of his own—this was the gift (of free will) that was given to Adam and Eve that turned into the curse of deadly knowledge. The white man’s tactics of slave breaking (which, again, shows the beast in the hearts of the slavemasters who actually treat other humans, whether Black or not, as worse than animals) were part of a plan to break the Africans’ spirits and minds, conditioning them to follow, like brutes, orders blindly and continue the same back-breaking tasks over and over mindlessly until death. The slave that learns to read and learns of his true condition and the unfairness of such, is no longer a brute. An educated man isn’t a laborer. We see that even in the white world, in the Industrial Age where many unlearned farmers moved to cities to work in factories that ran on an assembly system with one person doing that same small tasks again and again to complete and eventual whole. In his Democracy in America,1835, Alexis de Tocqueville observes the behavior of the poor, unlearned factory worker:
He every day becomes more adroit and less industrious; so that it may be said of him that in proportion as the workman improves, the man is degraded… In a short time the [worker]will require nothing but physical strength without intelligence…[and] resembles more and more… a brute.
Upton Sinclar goes into deeper, though similar, analysis of the transformation of a working or slaving man into a beast in his novel The Jungle.
From Adam, every man knows intimately the pain of illumination. Every man is blessed and cursed with the knowledge of his own death, and the comprehension of his own mortal weakness. It is said that to whom much is given, much is required, and these men of God’s favor, these men given power and wisdom, were always doomed to shortened lives or lost fortunes—but blessed with immortality in name and deed that people of the future can still revere. Douglass lamented his freedom in his learning to read and write, saying:
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…I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast…any thing, no matter what, to get rid of thinking! It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me. There was no getting rid of it. (Douglass, 68)
Indeed, Moses himself, who is said to have had all his hair turn white at the shock of seeing the Almighty God’s face, knows there is a price to pay for certain knowledge and enlightenment. As they say, ignorance is bliss. Luckily for Douglass and the men like him, through the pain of the knowledge they had gained, they were given the strength to push their people to the same knowledge, turning it to a power to pull oneself out of oppression. Douglass’s tale is necessary and continually relevant even today to keep renewing a thirst for knowledge in the hearts of the new generations who will, with such knowledge, use it wisely to set us all free.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. Bedford/St. Martin’s: Boston MA, 2003.
Barker, Kenneth (editor). Zondervan’s King James Version Study Bible. Zondervan Books: Grand Rapids MI, 1999.