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: