Levels of Literacy in African-American Literature - Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Song of Solomon, and Push
Through literacy will come emancipation. So runs a theme throughout the various selections we have read thus far. But emancipation comes in many forms, as does literacy. The various aspects of academic literacy are rather obvious in relation to emancipation, especially when one is confronted with exclusion from membership in the dominant culture. In the various slave narratives we have examined, all but one writer, Mary Prince, managed to achieve academic literacy to varying degrees (although, Mary Prince was in the process of learning to read and write). And even though she was not literate, Mary was still able to have her story told. Frederick Douglass, made it a point to attain literacy at any cost. Most, but not all, of Toni Morrison's characters in Song of Solomon appear to have attained at least a modicum of literacy. In Push, Sapphire has her protagonist, Precious, pointed down a long road toward at least a minimal form of academic literacy that will allow her to become a more functional human being and a much more productive member of society. What part does literacy play in the advancement of the individual, and to what lengths will one go to achieve it? What part must the individual play to make certain that literacy leads to the desired or implied advancement? And, finally, is there a cost for literacy, or is it always something gained?
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
As a relatively young man, Frederick Douglass discovers, in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, that learning to read and write can be his path to freedom. Upon discovering that his wife has been teaching Douglass to read, his master, Mr. Auld, states that "[...] it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read" (274). Auld's reasoning is that being able to read would "[...] forever unfit him [Douglass] to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master" (274). From Auld's admonitions, Douglass determines that his road to freedom is paved with words: "From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. [...] The very decided manner with which he spoke [...] served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering" (275). Douglass understands that he has everything to gain from literacy, especially the freedom that he desires above all else. His path will be difficult, though, since he will have to find ways to teach himself to read, but it becomes a quest for him.
Does Frederick Douglass have to pay a price to become literate? He states that he "[...] was compelled to resort to various stratagems [...]" to become literate and would "[...] [make] friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street" (276). He would ply them with scraps of bread in his efforts to gain knowledge and would read...