Literacy Lighting the Path

Douglass began with learning his ABC’s through his master’s wife. Inspired by his master’s objection to him learning to read, he sought any opportunity he could to develop his understanding of the alphabet. One opportunity came through him sneaking into his master’s office to copy out of his ledger book. Before long, Douglass had learned to emulate his master’s handwriting. From there, he created writing competitions with the local white children he would encounter around the town. He would boast of being a better writer, and the children would write in order to show Douglass how they could write better than he. Douglass set this up in order to continue his mastery of letters and the few words he knew how to write (Douglass, 1845).
Another opportunity came while Douglass was working at the shipyard. When pieces of wood were labeled in order to be assigned to a certain part of the ship (for building the ship), he would use charcoal to copy the labels. In this way, Douglass seized every moment to develop his literacy. There was one major act that demonstrated Douglass’ literacy development and his progression on the continuum of literateness. This act gave evidence of his graduation from the rudimentary practice of copying letters of the alphabet or simple words and phrases. In time, on his first attempt to escape slavery, Douglass wrote his own pass, in the same writing style as his master (Douglass, 1845). This was no small accomplishment. Lucinda MacKethan, professor emeritus of English at North Carolina State, says:

Writing his own pass, for the slave narrator, involved the appropriation of the master’s hand, the master’s grasp of language, and the master’s symbols…a black slave became a man of letters in a country where letters—the ability to make them and make meaning of them—were exclusively a white man’s domain. Mastering letters enabled Douglass to write his “pass” and to “pass” into a world where he could no longer be named a slave. (MacKethan, 1986, p. 64)

This evolution in Douglass’ life happened well before he actually became physically free. Literacy had liberated his mind (MacKethan, 1986). The pursuit of literacy all began with one moment when his master sought to keep him within the confines of slavery.
This process of Douglass mastering his master’s handwriting reveals his comprehension of the master’s language. When a person can take a piece of text and make it his/her own, and then develop some sort of creation from that text, it reveals a major step in the building of a person’s literacy. Douglass wrote his own pass and it was so well done that it looked exactly as if his master had written it. Another example is when the slaves wrote the Negro Spirituals, they proved to be the first persons of African descent to seek literacy in America. The creation of the Negro Spirituals is surprising because the Spirituals are based on the Bible which is the text slave master’s used to justify enslaving another human being. However, when you read the words of the spirituals, you see an embracing of Christianity for themselves.

Douglass creating his own pass and the slaves creating the Negro Spirituals, both remind me of when a student I had wrote a song based on our unit which included Ecclesiastes, The Iliad, and The Peloponnesian War:

It’s all meaningless, meaningless, meaningless
I can climb the highest mountain
I can swim to the deepest sea
But at the end of the day what does it all mean
I can do my very best
Pass every test
Wear victory on my chest
But I still know that it’s meaningless
(a student in my Great Books class)

The student wrote the above words, composed the instrumentation, played it and sang it during another one of our class productions. He went over to the keyboard (my class met in the school auditorium) and just started playing and singing this song. This is probably one of my most memorable moments in teaching the Great Books because of the spontaneity of this incident. We read the books and discussed them and he was inspired to write a song about his interpretations of the texts. To demonstrate their comprehension and connection with the literature, my students joined the process of recreating a text as Frederick Douglass did with the master’s handwriting and the slaves did with the Bible and the Negro Spirituals. Louise Rosenblatt (1983) says, “Fundamentally, the process of understanding a work implies a re-creation of it” (p.13).

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