Re-reading Literacy in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life

In his recent magisterial biography of Frederick Douglass, historian David W. Blight declares, “Douglass was a man of words...spoken and written language was the only major weapon of protest, persuasion, or power that he ever possessed.” Douglass’s own story of his hard-won literacy is one of the best known and most frequently taught aspects of his now-canonical 1845 Narrative of the Life. In this seminar, we will revisit the topic of Douglass’s frustrated and ultimately triumphant encounters with letters, words, and writing, considering his path to literacy and becoming a man of letters as less an example of heroic American individualism and instead as a necessarily communal and collaborative process. Our reading of his Narrative will be supplemented by select additional readings that contextualize and specifically foreground Douglass’s intellectual formation within a powerful community of Black activist thinkers and writers for whom literacy and literature was an especially powerful weapon for defeating slavery and discrimination.

This seminar is scheduled alongside the Newberry’s exhibition, A Show of Hands: 500 Years of the Art and Technology of Handwriting (December 18, 2020-March 3, 2021).