The American Race Issue: Literacy as a Means to Freedom.
The subject of ‘race throughout American history’ has evolved around has evolved around and run up against innumerable variables. One could choose, for example, to investigate the race issue’s relationship to labor market developments or any other equally important topic. However, due to the nature of the course, American History and Literature, of which this paper marks the ending, it is a natural consequence that this paper seeks to enquire into the race issue from a literary perspective. Again, hundreds of possible approaches present themselves to describe how the race issue has permeated literary history from the adoption of The Declaration of Independence in 1776 until now. This paper will approach literature’s role in the race issue from two primary perspectives, namely that of Frederick Douglass’ slave narrative in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, and from that of Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno. Rather than an actual textual analysis of the two authors’ works, this paper will use them as tools to provide a glimpse of the nature of the race issue and to show how, in Frederick Douglass’ case for instance, literacy does not equal freedom. The paper will attempt to investigate two separate perspectives of the race issue, namely, to present the living conditions of slaves as well as of liberated slaves in the 19th century through the works of, primarily, Frederick Douglass, but also Harriet Jacobs and to explore the racist mind of the white man through Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno.
The initial purpose of Frederick Douglass’ slavery narrative was to “create a common bond between reader and narrator” so, in other words, it was a tool for abolitionists to reveal slavery’s brutal and cruel essence. Whilst still maintaining its initial purpose, the slave narrative evolved to be much more than a strictly autobiographical work. Though preserving an often-similar format, it crossed the boundary between autobiography and fiction. Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave became one of the most prominent and widely read slave narratives and could arguably be considered the model for all subsequent slave narratives. A very basic, yet utterly important and commonly questioned feature of Frederick Douglass’ work is the fact that, rather than it being dictated to an editor, it was almost entirely written by Douglass himself. Frederick Douglass’ authorship and its credibility underwent several attacks and though he initially was accused of “not look[ing], act[ing], think[ing], or speak[ing] like a man who had just recently escaped slavery”, a man who had known him while he was still named Frederick Bailey, though not then recognizing the intelligence present in his works, had thus known Frederick Douglass when he was still a bondsman and thereby confirmed Douglass’ background.
The resentment vehemently expressed by Frederick Douglass when he was accused of forging the writing part of his authorship was not only a testament to how much he valued his literacy, but also showed his determination to prove that intelligence was not a matter of race, but a matter of upbringing and education. Continuing with this thought, fellow slave narrator Harriet Jacobs responded to “the underlying presumption that the Negro servant, or slave, was of a special inferior status”, by admitting “that the black man is inferior”; however, questioning the presumed fact that the gospels had the explanation for this inferiority she then asked: “what is it that makes it so? It is the ignorance in which white men compel him to live”.. Frederick Douglass’ master stated that “a nigger should know nothing but to obey his master – to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world… If you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave”. Such a statement shows, besides the harsh tone, that the slave masters were very aware of the fact that the proof of the black man’s intelligence, namely his ability to read and write, could potentially lead to a demand for equality and, as a consequence of this equality, it could lead to a demand for freedom. The natural consequence of this realization was the law that forbade teaching slaves to read.
The slave, Frederick Douglass, actually escaped from captivity in the South. From then onwards his literacy was no longer the tool with which to achieve freedom: it had become, rather, the symbol of his freedom and independence. In The Slave’s Narrative by Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates Jr. this new purpose of his literacy is described as:
 Lecater, page 15
 Douglass, page 19
 Gross and Hardy, page 29
 Jacobs, page 39
 Douglass, page 78