Frederick Douglass and D. Watkins: dialogue across the centuries on literacy and freedom

I’ve been really getting into reading memoirs over the past few months. Recently I read D. Watkins‘s The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir, the story of his transformation from East Baltimore inner-city drug dealer (and a very successful one, at that) to an adjunct professor and author with three post-secondary degrees. Not long after that I read Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, the first of his three autobiographies/memoirs; Narrative details his life from his birth into slavery in Maryland, to the time shortly after he obtained his freedom and began speaking on the abolitionist circuit. And then I read Watkins again, this time his first book, The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) while Black in America, which is a collection of short essays (most of which were previously published online).

It struck me as I was thinking about these books how similar they are in some respects. These are the personal accounts of two young black men, writing at around the same age, both Marylanders, either born in or having spent significant time in Baltimore. Both are passionate about black emancipation: Douglass from literal slavery, Watkins from poverty and its attendant social forces. And both of them see education and literacy as intimately tied to freedom.

When Douglass was first sent to Baltimore to work for a Mr. and Mrs. Auld, he writes that the wife began teaching him his letters — she was not from a traditionally slave-holding family, and was initially unfamiliar with many of the customary mores of slaveholders. Among the most important of those: that no slave must learn how to read. When her husband found out what she had done, he forbade her from continuing in the strongest terms:

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. And Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a n—– an inch, he will take an ell. A n—– should know nothing but to obey his master — to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best n—– in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that n—– (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. […] From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. (Douglass, Narrative, 78)

For Douglass, this was a seminal moment, and though he was no longer taught at home, he continued his education in secret, with the help of many of the white boys of Baltimore he met on the streets while running errands for his master and mistress. He would make bets with them that they couldn’t teach him to read a word, or to write his letters, and that was how he learned. Learning to read allowed him to consider new thoughts for the first time, to look at the institution into which he had been born and to start to understand its dynamics and its weaknesses. Watkins recounts a similar awakening in his own life:

I had a professor at the University of Baltimore and we were covering the Reconstruction era and conversations about slavery came up. And through my readings, I came across something that talked about the basic rules for slaves on a plantation. And one of them was that it was illegal for slaves to read. And that made so much sense. I didn’t read for most of my life. I was a slave for most of my life because I didn’t know—no matter how much money I made, no matter what I could buy, where I could go, who I could beat up, who I could put pressure on, I was lost because all my ideas were just somebody else’s ideas. I just borrowed them—and they probably borrowed them, too, because they didn’t read. And they got transferred down to them from another person who borrowed them. So we’re not even working with our own set of ideas. (Watkins, JHU Interview, Sep 2015)

Both Watkins and Douglass found freedom — first mental, then temporal/physical — through reading. But personal freedom isn’t enough to satisfy when one’s friends and family are still in bondage, whether to earthly masters in the slave system or to the grinding forces of poverty and illiteracy. In his essay “My Neighborhood Revolution,” Watkins recounts the moment that he realised that his friend Dub couldn’t read:

“Yo, you sick or something? What’s going on?”

He told me that he had been talking on the phone with his daughter in North Carolina at least once a week. She had the bright idea of them exchanging letters and had even sent the first one.

“So what you want — me to help you write a letter?” I asked. “Isn’t that personal?”

“Naw, D. I want you to read it to me. I don’t know what she talking about. Don’t tell nobody man I swear!”

He looked down at his boots and kicked gravel. I wondered, how could a forty-five-year-old man not know how to read? (Watkins, “My Neighborhood Revolution,” The Beast Side, 74)

For Douglass, this was no revelation: in a world where it was illegal to teach slaves to read, it was a given that the men and women beside whom he laboured were illiterate. When his living conditions changed and he was sent to another plantation, he found that he was able to teach several of his fellow slaves to read — and that he had in them eager students indeed:

Henry and John were quite intelligent, and in a very little while after I went there, I succeeded in creating in them a strong desire to learn how to read. This desire soon sprang up in the others also. They very soon mustered up some old spelling-books, and nothing would do but that I must keep a Sabbath school. I agreed to do so, and accordingly devoted my Sundays to teaching these my loved fellow-slaves how to read. Neither of them knew his letters when I went there. Some of the slaves of the neighboring farms found what was going on, and also availed themselves of this little opportunity to learn to read. It was understood, among all who came, that there must be as little display about it as possible. It was necessary to keep our religious masters at St. Michael’s unacquainted with the fact, that, instead of spending the Sabbath in wrestling, boxing, and drinking whisky, we were trying to learn how to read the will of God; for they had much rather see us engaged in those degrading sports, than to see us behaving like intellectual, moral, and accountable beings. My blood boils as I think of the bloody manner in which Messrs. Wright Fairbanks and Garrison West, both [Methodist] class-leaders, in connection with many others, rushed in upon us with sticks and stones, and broke up our virtuous little Sabbath school, at St. Michael’s — all calling themselves Christians! humble followers of the Lord Jesus Christ! But I am again digressing. […]

These dear souls came not to the Sabbath school because it was popular to do so, nor did I teach them because it was reputable to be thus engaged. Every moment they spent in that school, they were liable to be taken up, and given thirty-nine lashes. They came because they wished to learn. Their minds had been starved by their cruel masters. They had been shut up in mental darkness. I taught them, because it was the delight of my soul to be doing something that looked like bettering the condition of my race. […] And I have the happiness to know, that several of those who came to Sabbath school learned how to read; and that one, at least, is now free through my agency. (Douglass, Narrative, 119-20, 121)

It’s obvious why Henry and John, and Frederick Douglass himself at one time, were not able to read. But what about Watkins’s friend Dub? How did he fall through the cracks? Watkins posits that the answer is, in part, the legacy of illiteracy and other poor education outcomes left behind by slavery. He notes that it’s hard to discount the head start experienced by the white community at large in comparison to America’s black population:

While African slaves spent countless days cooking, cleaning, being raped, beaten, sweating in the fields, and occasionally lynched, the children of their rich masters were being educated. The 1800s saw schools pop up all over the United States, and by the end of the 19th century, free public education was available for all white children. Blacks have been in America since 1619 and received virtually no schooling until after President Abraham Lincoln decreed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. That is a 244-year head start given to whites — 244 years of exposure to scientific reasoning and philosophical thought, hundreds of years to discover the power of books and reading and to shape dreams into reality. (Watkins, “The School of Failure,” The Beast Side, 49)

I know that this point will read as controversial; some of you just felt your blood pressure tick up a notch! It’s been over 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation; is Watkins saying that all of the problems faced by black Americans can still be laid squarely at the feet of white Americans, despite the significant temporal gap between the end of slavery and today? Is that “head start” supposed to account for all educational achievement gaps between white and black communities? What about personal responsibility? I don’t think this is what he’s saying; I’m cherry-picking quotes here for the purposes of this post, but if you read Watkins more broadly it’s obvious that he recognises the challenges of his East Baltimore community as multi-faceted. Racial discrimination is part of the problem, but so are other things. Poverty is a huge factor (and with roughly 14% of American adults functionally illiterate, we can expect to find a large overlap there, regardless of racial makeup). Food deserts are a problem. Family breakdown is a problem. Addiction is a problem. The relatively easy money to be made illegally on the streets is a problem. In his immediate context, the notorious corruption in Baltimore City’s police department is part of the problem. There are a lot things going on here; Watkins doesn’t dismiss them, but he makes an important point: we also need to consider generational patterns.

We understand this when it’s on the small scale. If you grow up in a family where you’re expected to go to school and succeed there, you’re more likely to do so. If your parents have a strong religious faith, you have a higher likelihood of having religious faith. Tragically, generational patterns are even more obvious when they are destructive: If your parents hit you, you have a higher likelihood of hitting your own children. If your parents were alcoholics, you have a higher likelihood of being an alcoholic yourself. It can be incredibly difficult to break free of these family and cultural molds. This is why it’s such a big deal when someone becomes the first in their family to pursue post-secondary education — we recognise that on the student’s part it takes extra gumption to accomplish something that none of the adults around you have done, and on the parents’ part that it’s hard to champion your child through something you’ve never experienced yourself. Now take those family-sized generational patterns and expectations, and balloon them out to community-sized. This does not absolve anyone of personal responsibility. But I think it does illustrate the kind of pressures that personal responsibility sometimes has to go up against.

So there you have it: a combination of poor schools, institutionalized segregation, and minimal funding not only cultivated the deep roots of educational denial, but also strengthened the foundation upon which achievement gaps are built today. The combination of all these historical events led to what I call the Tradition of Failure. The tradition was not self-imposed. Obviously, African Americans can take some personal responsibility for the state of our race; however, many of us do not have a clue because we come from a tradition of people who never had a clue, leading all the way back to the day our ancestors left Elmina, the former slave port in Ghana that launched us on our turgid journey to this new world. (Watkins, “The School of Failure,” The Beast Side, 50-1)

For all that, Watkins is not without hope for the future. He writes of his own experience that reading changed his outlook almost immediately, as he was exposed to new ideas and learned to think critically. As an English professor, he works to give his students the same experience.

“Reading is boring” is a phrase I’ve been hearing at the beginning of each semester from the freshmen at Coppin State University, where I teach English 101. I give them my soliloquy on why it was illegal for slaves to read and how easy it was for masters to control populations of people with limited thoughts — partially due to illiteracy. I usually say, “Being smart and developing complex thoughts without reading is like trying to get Schwarzennegger muscles without working out.”

The I assign books like Decoded by Jay Z, and The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore. I also scour the Internet for articles that speak directly to them. I believe that everyone would enjoy reading if they had the right material. Obtaining that material would not only provide the foundation for basic skills needed but also spark a greater interest in literature outside of the classroom.

[…] I wasn’t hooked on books until I read Sista Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever, Clockers by Richard Price, and a few Sherman Alexie essays. Those books opened up my mind and led to me consuming more and more. My thoughts changed, I developed new ideas, and I was forever transformed. Within months, I went from a guy who solved problems by breaking a bottle over someone’s forehead to using solution-based thinking when resolving [problems] — reading instantly civilized me. And if it can work for me, I believe it can work for anybody. (Watkins, “My Neighborhood Revolution,” The Beast Side, 75-6)

Watkins’s assertion that control of the slave population by owners was greatly aided by slaves’ illiteracy (and the way that illiteracy impedes thought) is corroborated by Frederick Douglass:

When in Mr. Gardner’s employment, I was kept in such a perpetual whirl of excitement, I could think of nothing, scarcely, but my life; and in thinking of my life, I almost forgot my liberty. I have observed this in my experience of slavery, — that whenever my condition was improved, instead of its increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free, and set me to thinking of plans to gain my freedom. I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man. (Douglass, Narrative, 135)

But the analysis of the problem also shows the cure: if a man is enslaved through his lack of thought, which stems from his inability to read, then surely learning to read will free him — or at least start him down that road. It worked as well for D. Watkins at the end of the twentieth-century as it did for Frederick Douglass in the early nineteenth. It was fascinating to me to read these two authors in tandem, to see what has and hasn’t changed in their respective communities, and to see both of them naming literacy as such a major touchstone for lasting change. I’ll let Watkins take us out:


In praise of “y’all”

I wrote an email recently that went to a number of people. It started “Dear y’all,” and I was struck anew by how glad I am to have absorbed this word into my vocabulary. When you live away from your home country, it’s always interesting to note the ways it changes you as time goes on: the foods you eat, the way your accent shifts (or doesn’t), words that enter or leave your vocabulary. I would never have imagined myself as someone who uses y’all, frequently and sincerely — but I do. And I think it’s one of the most useful words I’ve picked up in a long time.

Canadian English doesn’t have a lot of great options for addressing groups of people. There’s “you guys”, which is serviceable, but which is informal and somewhat clunky — and anyway, some women don’t like being called “guys” and so you run a risk of low-key offending. There’s “folks,” which my husband uses sometimes,  but again, it’s pretty informal and doesn’t always suit. “People” sounds bossy. “Youse guys” sounds ridiculous (sorry, New York). “Ye” sounds very strange if you’re not a Newfoundler or Quaker. “You” is ambigious because it can be either singular or plural. And don’t even get me started on “yinz,” which is — amazingly — even more ridiculous than “youse guys” (sorry, Pittsburgh; I speak this truth in love).

Enter y’all, which might be the perfect second-person plural.

Y’all is adaptable: neither formal nor informal. Y’all is gender neutral. Y’all refers to two people with as much ease as it does to two thousand or two million. Y’all carries warm natural overtones of Southern hospitality. What a useful word!

We don’t plan on staying in the United States forever. At some point we’ll return to the Great White North with our American children, our relentlessly flattening/flattened vowels (cuppah cahffee, anyone?), the freedom of not using pennies, and the anticipatory joy of finally being able to find decent tea at any grocery store. And, of course, with the word y’all. It’s just so convenient; I hope y’all understand.

Explore more: Y’all, You’uns, Yinz, Youse: How regional dialects are filling a void in standard English for a plural pronoun | Florence Y’all Water Tower | America Needs Y’all

In which I come out of a particularly Canadian closet

Although my husband and I have been living in the United States for about five years now, we are Canadian, and occasionally manage to get back home to Ontario to see family and all that jazz. We just got back from a lovely week-long visit, seeing various people in various cities, and it’s given me some things to mull over.

I had forgotten the strong undercurrent of anti-American sentiment that runs through Canadian culture. Or not forgotten, exactly, but I had been able to put it aside for a time while living in this country that, for all its faults and for all that I remain exquisitely conscious of being foreign, I do very much enjoy. But when people found out that we live in the US, the questions immediately followed as to why we were living there and what we thought of the current president — mostly from strangers, and seeming less from curiosity than with an interest in having us prove our credentials. (I was also reminded that geographical ignorance runs both ways, when a parking lot attendant in a border city asked us where our State is located, while completely butchering its pronunciation.) Strangers felt comfortable saying things about America and Americans to us because those things are generally comfortable to say in Canada. We can rattle off the stereotypes pretty easily: Americans are loud, boorish, arrogant, jingoistic, outrageously fat, ignorant, racist, monolingual, radically capitalist gun nuts.

It’s amazing to me both how pervasive and how subtle this can be. When we moved to the US five years ago, one of the things that surprised me was how nice everyone was. The Americans we were running into were, on the whole, pretty kind people. They were easygoing, open, and friendly. Many of them have been extraordinarily generous to us. Are there Americans who display some of the stereotypical qualities outlined above? Of course there are. But in my experience, they’re not the majority, not by a long shot. I shouldn’t have been surprised that I was running into pleasant Americans. I should probably have been more surprised at my surprise.

It’s not like I hadn’t had contact with the United States before coming to live here. Good grief, half my family is American. My mother was born in Maryland; surely that means I am partly American myself, by heritage if not by citizenship. But it’s something I’ve tended to downplay, because admitting that you like Americans or that you are one is often met in Canada, if not with hostility, at least with a certain degree of suspicion. My mother, emigrating with her parents in the early 1970s, was met by her classmates with cries of “Yankee go home!” In forty or so years, I’m not sure how much has changed.

But this is where I live if not for the long term, then at least for now. Some of our dearest friends are American, as our three quarters of our children’s godparents. I have a Canadian brother-in-law who took American citizenship. Half my extended family lives here or is from here — and of course, our children were born Stateside and so are dual citizens (Canadian through us, American by birth). I like America. I like Americans. There, I said it.

This is not to say that I think the United States is problem-free. Do I think that a two-party system of government is completely bananas? Do I think that American healthcare is deeply broken ? Are America’s lingering racial wounds sometimes all too obvious? Yes, yes, and yes. We have run into our fair share of cultural differences here, some of which have been truly head-scratching. But just like you can love a family member without loving all of the decisions they make, you can love a people without loving all of the institutions under which they abide. I don’t think there is any inherent conflict there (after all, many Americans don’t love all of the institutions that shape their country either). Liking Americans shouldn’t have to mean approving of everything about America. Similarly, disapproving of certain things about America shouldn’t have to mean automatically disliking Americans.

And so I’m coming out of this particular Maple-emblazoned closet: My name is Christine. I am Canadian. And I think that Americans are pretty ok.

Race in America (a self-education project)

There is part of me that really hesitates to engage with this topic, because I know I’m ignorant in many ways. And even though I live in America, I’m not American.[1] I’ve lived three years slightly north of the Mason-Dixon line, and one year slightly to its south, but I grew up and lived most of my adult life in Canada, and things are different there. I’m not saying that Canada is a magical post-racist paradise; we have plenty of problems of our own. But still … it’s just different.

On the large scale, our history is profoundly different, especially in regard to the history of black Canadians. There were no plantations in Canada. While there were African slaves present in the country, they were mostly house slaves or farmhands, and their total number seems to never have been more than a few thousands (the majority of whom were brought with Loyalist settlers fleeing the American Revolution). Abolition was enacted in Upper Canada (now Ontario) in the 1790s; the slave trade was abolished in 1807 by an Act of Parliament; slavery itself, ditto, in 1833. And Canada, of course, was the fabled last stop on the Underground Railroad. So… culturally, historically, it’s just a completely different beast.

On a more personal level, I grew up in Toronto — which is generally hailed to be one of the most, if not the most, multi-cultural cities on the planet. Over 50% of Torontonians are visible minorities; the city’s population hails from over 200 ethnic origins and speaks more than 160 languages. So that environment is my own baseline for normal.

But then I moved to the States, and began to realise that I had been thrust into the midst of a divided country whose politics and history and culture and racial tensions I didn’t really understand. (By the way, don’t let anyone tell you that Canada and the US are so culturally similar that they might as well be one country. Anyone who says that has never lived in both countries; it takes a lot more to unite a culture than a common language.) At any rate, I can frame my growing awareness with a series of snapshots from my first year or two in the USA.


Snapshot: We are talking with a married couple who entered seminary with us: she is black and he is white. They had previously lived in Columbia, SC. She makes reference to the fact that “Columbia is still fighting the Civil War.” I don’t understand what she means. As the conversation keeps going it gets spelled out: they left Columbia in part because of how uncomfortable they were as an interracial couple there. They were tired of being discriminated against. They were tired of being stared at in the street. She was tired of the people at her church not being able to tell the difference between her and the only other black woman in her parish.

Snapshot: Another conversation, this time with a classmate who grew up in the Deep South. He confesses that even though he knows it’s wrong, it’s still jarring to him to see whites performing menial or service industry jobs because culturally he expects those jobs to be filled exclusively by black or Hispanic people.

Snapshot: Hanging out with friends at their house, another couple from a southern state. He is telling a story about one of their son’s former teachers and refers to her as “from the islands.” I don’t understand what he means: “She’s what?” He glances awkwardly at his children (ages 5 and 8, or thereabouts). “You know… from the islands.” It dawns on me. “Don’t worry,” I tell him, “I’m pretty sure they already know black people exist.”


So what do I do with all this? The same thing I do whenever I want to understand something: I read. This has been a slow and sporadic project of self-education on the topic — I’ve read fiction and non-fiction, and of course many articles on the subject that I stumble upon or that cross my facebook feed. A lot of these have been read months or even years apart, but as I look through my book log I can trace their path as one of the particular reading trails I’m following. Here are some of the footsteps I’ve taken along that trail:

Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin: In 1959, Griffin, a white journalist, chemically darkened his skin until he could pass as black, and then spent six weeks travelling around the Jim Crow south. This account is drawn from the diary he kept over the course of the trip and was first published in 1961. His book opened the eyes of whites across the nation as to the real living conditions of black Americans; it also saw him hanged in effigy and having to move to Mexico for several years for his family’s safety. (I recognise the complicated nature of reading/believing/etc. the account of a white man pretending to be black rather than the account of someone, you know, actually black — but this is still most definitely worth reading. Here’s a good Washington Post article on Black Like Me.)

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill (published in America under the title Someone Knows My Name): This sad and lovely novel by Canadian author Lawrence Hill follows the story of Aminata Diallo, an African woman captured into slavery at the age of eleven. She ends up as a slave in North Carolina, before making her way to Canada during the American Revolution. The title refers to the historical document known as the Book of Negroes, a register of black loyalists who escaped behind British lines during the war and were eventually settled in Nova Scotia. I re-read this book every couple of years; there is also a mini-series.

Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make it Harder for Blacks to Succeed by Jason Riley: This was set out on one of the Black History Month display tables and the rather provocative title grabbed my attention. I read it; I would say that it lives up to the initial promise of provocation but certainly provides much food for thought. Critics are divided; I’ve seen reviews that laud it, and others that pan it. It certainly checked off a lot of boxes for me in terms of looking for diverse viewpoints; I would be interested to read a direct response to it, if one exists.

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters: This novel takes place in an alternate, modern-day America where the Civil War never took place and slavery still exists in four southern “hard states.” The protagonist, Victor, is a former slave who now works as a bounty hunter for the US Marshalls, tracking down escaped slaves and infiltrating the abolitionist movement, for reasons that are… complicated, to say the least. It’s a harrowing book, not only because of the story that it tells, but in its parallels to life today. A line that struck me and has stuck with me (possibly slightly paraphrased): “When black means poor and poor means dangerous, pretty soon black means dangerous.” And isn’t that how it seems to go?

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison: I know we’re not supposed to admit it about seminal, classic texts — but this was a bit of a slog for me. It’s a long book, and dense, and at times I wished I were reading something a little more gripping. It was good — I’m not surprised at the place it holds on many “top” lists of 20th-century fiction — but it was slow when I wanted to be reading something fast (this is a reflection on me as much as on the book, I think). I may revisit it in a few years and see if my impression changes.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance: This is more tangentially than directly related, but I think that it still fits here. It seems that whenever the question of white privilege arises, someone starts asking, “Well, what about poor whites? What privilege do they have?” Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating book and answers the question of “what about poor whites” (at least those in Appalachia). The privilege of the hillbilly — which seems pretty scant, I think — is that, all else being equal, it is still easier in this country to have light skin than dark.

Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi: I haven’t read this yet; it’s currently sitting on the library’s hold shelves waiting for me to come pick it up. But I am especially intrigued that it is concerned with the history not of racist acts but of racist ideas — because, after all, does the idea not precede the action? I am looking forward to diving into this one after I get through the books ahead of it in my current to-read stack.

So that’s where I am. I know that I’m just dipping my toe into what’s out there and I have much more reading to do. And I may never understand as much or as well as I want to — but I am starting, all the same. Suggestions for further reading are always appreciated.


[1] Of course, this is a bit of a cop-out. I’m not American, but I do live here. And Anselm and Perpetua, by virtue of their birth, are United States citizens. So what happens in and to this country needs to matter to me, because one day it will matter to them.