Frederick Douglass and an “Unfit” Education

This week in my U.S. survey, we’re discussing Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of an American Slave. It’s a venerable text, and used so often in the survey that it almost feels like a cliche’ when I assign it. But Douglass is, you might have heard, doing a terrific job that’s being recognized by more and more people (sorry; I couldn’t resist). On a serious note, though, I’m sensitive to the fact that Douglass’s (over?)use in the classroom may obscure much of the rest of the rich abolitionist and slave-narrative literature, so I don’t use the Narrative more than every few semesters. I usually rotate through different primary sources on slavery when I assign texts for this part of the survey, actually. I’ve used William Wells Brown’s 1853 novel Clotel, or the President’s Daughter, which imagines the life of Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved daughter (a novel, as we now know, that hit closer to the mark than even Brown’s audience might have imagined). I’ve employed anthologies of slave narratives, as well as sent students to public domain works online-especially the superlative North American Slave Narratives collection in UNC’s Documenting the American South project. I’ve also adopted other well-known works in the genre such as Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years a Slave and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. I’ve used Melton McLaurin’s powerful and vivid Celia: A Slave. But I came back to Douglass this semester, partially because I really liked the new Norton Critical Edition of the Narrative that recently came out (it has a lot of cool additional material in there), and partially because when it really comes down to it, I love teaching this text.

There are lots of reasons Douglass’s Narrative is such a good text to teach. On the surface, it’s a gripping story written in a powerful yet accessible manner; the same virtues that made the book so popular in the mid-1800s work in its favor today. This ease of access for students allows for some good, collaborative unpacking of the text. The Narrative gives us, for example, a rich array of materials with which to consider the spectrum of slave resistance and the degree to which enslaved peoples exercised agency. Students are particularly drawn to one of the Narrative’s climactic episodes, the fight between Douglass and the slave-breaker Edward Covey, where Douglass ultimately prevails and becomes, in spirit at least, no longer a slave but a free man. But what they often don’t consider, until queried in class, are the risks Douglass took in attacking Covey. Here, I remind them of the slave Demby, whose fate Douglass recounts earlier (in Chapter IV). Demby, too, refused to obey; he showed a “manly resistance” by refusing to exit the river into which he’d waded to escape punishment. And the overseer, Mr. Austin Gore, calmly leveled his musket and shot Demby dead. As Douglass describes, “His mangled body sank out of sight, and blood and brains marked the water where he had stood.” This juxtaposition underscores how high the stakes were when it came to resistance. Students may romantically imagine themselves fighting against enslavement, like Douglass did with Covey. But what if Douglass (who was no older than sixteen at the time) lost the fight, to which he was driven more by exhausted, fearful desperation than from any heroic impulse? The line separating the Douglasses and the Dembys was a fine one indeed. There was a spectrum of ways in which slaves could manifest resistance, to be sure, but Douglass’s text shows us that slaves did not possess a full range of agency in doing so. The power imbalance inherent in the master-slave relationship meant that resistance was undertaken against monstrous odds and could carry violent, perhaps deadly, consequences.

Douglass’s assessments of the effects of slavery on the slaveowning class are easy to spot, particularly with the vivid way he describes the transformation of Lucretia Auld, who transforms from a woman of “angelic countenance” to a shrill, abusive mistress as the result of holding power over human chattel. Moreover, the scathing indictment Douglass unleashes on religious slaveholders, especially the comparison in the Appendix “between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ,” creates the opportunity for a rich discussion of the ways in which evangelical Protestantism was and has been deployed in U.S. history. Douglass’s point-counterpoint discussion of slaveholders’ religion and genuinely Christian precepts resonates sharply with students who are seeing similar controversies surrounding the principles and practice of evangelical religion in their own day. The Narrative’s explicit attack on mainstream religiosity is in itself significant, demonstrating a larger connection with a particular abolitionist style, made famous by William Lloyd Garrison, that unflinchingly took on the mainstream Protestantism which emerged from the Second Great Awakening. Power and morality are topics that can ensure a discussion will never go wanting, and the Narrative is an excellent entry point for students to examine the interplay of both issues in U.S. history.

Even more importantly, though, with a little digging, students are also able to reckon with Douglass’s portrayal of slavery’s effects on the enslaved. There are rich examples in the Narrative’s descriptions of dull, listless, laborers on the Baily farm in Talbot County, or the dissipated bacchanalia between Christmas and New Year’s designed by masters to make slaves regretful in the end, and repulsed by freedom. The tricks that Edward Covey used to keep the enslaved workers on his farm perpetually on edge, expecting him to jump out from behind the nearest tree or the closest outbuilding, testify to how psychological forms of coercion supplemented physical violence in maintaining slavery. The poignant scene where Douglass recounts his lamentations delivered to the boats he saw sailing in the Chesapeake Bay, where he despairs of ever being free, and describes his “reconciling myself to my wretched lot,” underscores more powerfully than any secondary source could just how dehumanizing enslavement could be. Getting students to see these examples of strict limits placed on individual autonomy is an essential part of helping them understand the ways in which enslavement often worked to sap the capacity for resistance. In this light, I find it interesting to hear students’ responses when I ask them at what point they think Douglass was no longer a slave. Some point to his actual escape, interpreting the question in a technical, but accurate, sense. Others interrogate that assumption, pointing to the racism that existed in the North and wondering if African Americans could truly be “free,” in the fullest sense of the term. Some also point to moments where the boundaries between slavery and freedom seemed to blur for Douglass—his victory over Covey in their fight, or his hiring out for wages in Baltimore. But what fascinates me is how many of my students have pointed to achieving literacy as the point in which Douglass becomes “free.”

This reflects, I think, my students’ general faith in education as the great lever of social mobility (somewhere, Horace Mann smiles). I’m comforted by that faith, as it seems to be proving quite resilient even against the current backdrop of such pervasive anti-higher-education discourse. But it’s also a little misplaced in the context of Douglass’s Narrative. We (and I say “we” because I think this observation applies generally) tend to place so much faith in the maxim that “knowledge is power,” that we miss how in some cases knowledge doesn’t make everything better. The scene I alluded to in the above paragraph—at the edge of the Chesapeake Bay where Douglass despairs of ever becoming free and even hints at suicide—comes after Douglass has learned to read and write. The broader perspective that comes from learning, in this case, only serves to underscore for Douglass the abject misery of his current condition. Enslavement is horrific, but a full knowledge of everything one is deprived of by being enslaved nearly undoes Douglass. The nonlinear progress of Douglass’s quest for freedom doesn’t mean that education doesn’t matter, but it does show us the benefits of learning are often more problematic and unevenly distributed than our facile faith in knowledge-as-improvement allows for.

The best example of this problematizing aspect of education is actually one of the most popular and oft-cited passages in Douglass’s Narrative, where Hugh Auld demands that his wife Lucretia cease teaching the young Douglass how to read and write. “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell,” Douglass recounts Hugh telling his wife. “A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master…Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world.” Douglass continues to recount Hugh’s lecture: “Now…if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him for being a slave” [emphasis added]. As we’ve seen, knowledge may have “unfit” Douglass for “being a slave,” but it nearly undid him mentally in the process—a true double-edged sword. When my students point to this passage as they describe how education made Douglass no longer a slave, potentially if not actually, they are attracted to its sense that education “unfits” a person for slavery. And in doing so, they are not ratifying education in general, but a specific type of education in particular. I recall a conversation with a colleague who was poking fun at potential employers who say they want college graduates who can think critically. “They don’t want critical thinkers at all,” he scoffed. “They want obedient thinkers. I want critical thinkers.” Then, alluding to Douglass, he smiled and said, “I want to ruin my students for slavery.” He’s right. If we are serious about “critical thinking” as a worthy goal in higher education, we need to engage in this type of ruination. And students are attracted to it—learning becomes more interesting when it has the potential to subvert, to complicate, to rebel. Their enthusiastic reactions to this part of Douglass’s Narrative illustrate that well. But the implications can be messy: the inhabitants of the post-college jobs landscape say they want critical thinkers, but I’m not so sure they really do. “There’s no keeping” someone who has truly been educated (as opposed to trained).

Maybe that’s the reason I keep coming back to Douglass, especially for this semester. In our times, the need for this type of educational vision has never been more clear. We need to make our students “unfit” intellectual chattels. I want to “spoil” my students for thralldom. Now, more than ever, Douglass and his Narrative’s complicated and complicating messages on education and liberation take on an urgent relevance. I guess it’s a good thing he’s being recognized more and more. We need it.

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