When Words Don't Matter

William Major wants his students to know what Frederick Douglass taught himself about the power of literacy and the importance of choices.

February 14, 2012

In my sophomore literature class, I read a passage aloud from perhaps our best-known slave narrative, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, in which Douglass characterizes the nefarious effects of slavery on his new mistress, Sophia Auld:

The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon.

But then I stopped and asked, "What does the word commenced mean?" Silence. "What about infernal?" Silence. "Accord?" Embarrassed smiles all around.

In the past I would have given my standard lecture about looking up words instead of relying on something my students call "context clues," which I take to mean anything that prevents them from stopping, briefly, to do it the old-fashioned way. They have told me that they learned about "context clues" from previous teachers. I ask them what the word "context" means. Silence.

Douglass intimates that the worst part about slavery isn't the work or the whippings or the cold or the hunger or even the literal shackles. It's neither the blood nor the rapes. No, it's the compulsory ignorance, the full force of a system that understands slavery can only exist by the deprivation of learning, the absence, as it were, of light.

So I asked them: "What’s it like to be slaves?" I wasn't referring to Douglass, and I think some of them knew it.

As a child Douglass overhears his master, Hugh Auld, tell the naively benevolent Sophia to stop teaching him to read: "A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master — to do as he is told to do," Auld tells her. "Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world" and "would forever unfit him to be a slave." This is the moment of enlightenment for Douglass as he discovers through serendipity and keen discernment what he had always pondered: "to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man." He resolves to learn to read, reasoning that compulsory ignorance is the tool that keeps him and his fellow slaves in bondage.

"It is hard to have a southern overseer," Douglass’s contemporary, Henry David Thoreau, wrote in Walden; "it is worse to have a northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself." Although Thoreau refers to physical labor that fails the test of self-enlightenment, his larger point applies to my students who, too, seem explicitly bent upon achieving their own contemporary version of metaphysical enslavement. Both Douglass and Thoreau would recognize and lament this mentality, and walk away confused by the disheartening juxtaposition of material affluence and imaginative poverty. And then they would use words to write about it.

It bears asking, though, what such students might be enslaved to, or by. Dangerous ideas? Not likely. The latest in chic outerwear for the fall season? Too late. Without sounding overly prejudicial, it is difficult to conceive of much that would fundamentally threaten their defensive sense of self-assurance, which is often no such thing. What I want to say here is that I am not always sure what I would like to free my students from — figurative slavery notwithstanding — since so many of them seem blissfully happy in their formidable selves. It's freedom to I’m concerned with.

Complicating my bewilderment is that I have no transgenerational ax to grind, knowing as I do that the cry of English professors over their students' supposed failings is pretty standard fare for well over a century at least, and anyway, the topic simply isn’t that interesting before the third beer.

So here's what I want, in part: I want my students to become interesting people — that is, more interesting than they already are. I want to be able to talk to them in 10 years about Frederick Douglass, and if they aren’t into Frederick Douglass I would wish that they have a passion about something, as I think many of them will. Most important, my foremost desire is for them to have the tools to express their passion, whatever that passion may be. One of these tools is vocabulary; the more important other is curiosity.

You have an English professor, a text, and a class. You ideally have the formula for some kind of reimagining of the self, the world, the text — even the professor. And a choice gets made not to make that transformation, not out of any inchoate philosophical positioning (echoing Bartleby the Scrivener’s "I would prefer not to"), but, well, just because. I would prefer not to. Or, more reasonably, the students choose not to out of fear, having failed in their previous attempts, or because the words themselves are another in a long list of obstacles familial, cultural, and structural.

But imagine, too, how Douglass's autobiography would look had he made the same choice not to pay attention to the signs around him. It would look like silence, the kind of silence we used to see on walls in New York City in the early and middle years of the AIDS crisis: Silence = death, a morbid equation that would touch Douglass at his very core and about which, I am certain, he and Thoreau would have much to say.

Thus his communicative power — indeed, any communicative power — is tied inextricably to literal and figurative liberation; it is liberation’s proximate and ultimate precondition. Sadly, many of my students miss the nuances of Douglass’s story because its function as literary text shuts down that act of communication. Think of it: an aesthetic and polemical text — no, a book! — a slave narrative that misses its mark because the author, himself an escaped slave with no formal education, uses words too well. The very words that helped to free Douglass are now the mark of another form of enslavement. I try to encourage my students to think of the profundity of a boy, then a man, who was everywhere unrecognized as a boy or man until his escape, and even then he remained of questionable status. His devotion to learning as a slave in fact allowed him to occupy the space of all those who kept him from such learning. He took power.  

I want my students to take the same power, even if it seems significantly less is at stake. Maybe that's the problem. Maybe it only appears as if nothing other than a letter grade is on the line. If so, that’s exactly where we as educators have failed. We have to find a way to free them and ourselves. Why keep pretending? Why continue the charade? Slavery, as Douglass tells us, affects everyone, including the masters whose tyrannical assumption of power corrupts even the beneficent Sophia Auld. I want my students to free me, too. They can only do this by assuming and wielding the power I would most readily concede. Take it, I want to tell them. Kill me.


William Major is professor of English at Hillyer College of the University of Hartford.


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