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The Literary Development of Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X each achieved literacy through the use of unconventional methods. Douglass, as a 19th-century slave in America, learned the fundamentals of reading and writing in secret. Malcolm X had daily access to a prison library that he claimed “any college library would have been lucky to get” (247). They both voraciously devoured books and methodically copied letters and words so as to hone their reading and writing skills. They pursued their goal with unwavering resolution and passion. However, the two men’s perspectives on the implications of their literary development were disparate. Ultimately, Frederick Douglass viewed his education partially as a burden while Malcolm X thought literacy freed his mind from the chains of ignorance, even as he remained imprisoned in a small, barren jail cell.

Frederick Douglass’ mistress quietly and illegally taught him the alphabet when he was a boy. She later terminated their informal schooling sessions at her husband’s request, but Douglass still wanted to know more. His low social status as a slave did not hinder his curiosity- in fact, it fueled it. Since slaves were not supposed to be literate, he thought the ability to read and write would bring him one step closer to emancipation. Thus, he valued education highly, as evidenced by his quotation, “This bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give that more valuable bread of knowledge” (101). This antithesis challenged the reader’s first impression of the “little urchins,” a dysphemism for the local white boys, that trying to learn from them would be futile. It dramatized the effect when he revealed they indeed played a moderately significant role in his literary development.

His antanaclasis, namely the word “bread” used twice in the same sentence, but in different contexts, emphasized that the importance the poverty-stricken placed on food was the same as that which he placed on knowledge. Since he was deprived of education, he wanted it, yearned for it, desired it, in the same way the empty-bellied boys craved sustenance. Douglass valued reading as empowering and life-giving; to him, words were basic human necessities. They gave him the hope that he would one day be free from the cage that was slavery.

Douglass’ view of books changed, though, as his comprehension improved. After years of reading schoolbooks between errands, Douglass could read lengthier texts like The Columbian Orator. Coupled with his writing skills -after years of doggedly copying letters from his master’s copybook and the wharf, with his “copybook…the board fence” (105)- he finally reaped all the rewards of literacy. Sadly for Douglass, the reward of being able to read about slavery, and not rely purely on empirical experience, was not what he expected. He wrote “learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing” (105) and “it had given me a view of my wretched condition” (105) and “I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity” (105). Knowledge, books, ideas, once the most important things in his life, turned against him. They were “in every sound…in every thing…” (105). Their ubiquity overwhelmed Douglass as he learned the stifling reality that was his life: he would stay enslaved probably for as long as he walked the earth. He used language with strong negative connotations to convey his disappointment that literacy failed to meet his idealistic expectations; his anguish about societal limitations for African-Americans; and his depression stemming from his newfound belief that becoming literate created only more strife in his existence. Words like “curse”, “wretched”, and “envied” revealed these powerful emotions. His beloved knowledge showed him that he was trapped; it eliminated the sliver of hope to which other slaves could cling, because they didn’t know the truth. The very thing he wanted most ended up making him miserable.

Malcolm X’s quest for knowledge was arguably more self-satisfying than Douglass’. Malcolm X knew rudimentary rules of language, but became a reading aficionado after arrested for burglary. He read a myriad of books in the prison library, especially about history and philosophy. He painstakingly copied every word in the dictionary, down to the last punctuation mark. He was determined to better himself educationally, and if that required mind-numbing, tedious work, so be it. If prison wasn’t the ideal place for fostering intellectual abilities- that was fine with him, he would teach himself. Interestingly enough, though, Malcolm X’s environment helped him develop his cognitive skills. He mentioned that prisoners engaged in debates like “Should Babies Be Fed Milk?” (Malcolm X, 247). This statement challenged the common idea that prisoners were merely brutes without great intellectual and moral capacities- indeed, they thought and felt just like every other human being on the planet. In essence, Malcolm X wanted to humanize prisoners in the eyes of the public so that readers would more easily connect, and sympathize, with them before he introduced radical and controversial ideas, such as “white men had indeed acted like devils.” It also foreshadowed that Malcolm X would not contribute himself to the stereotype either.

Malcolm X appreciated the fact that he attained literacy and expressed no regrets as Frederick Douglass did. Malcolm X wrote that literacy “freed him ” (254) and “attacked his ignorance” (254). These phrases suggested that he felt liberated, as if his ignorance had held him captive. Through books he learned of the oppression blacks suffered through for centuries, and it opened his eyes and inspired him to take action. He realized that, when he finished his sentence, he could emerge from behind his prison bars as a fighter for African-Americans’ rights and attempt to eliminate racial barriers.

The stark difference in perspective these two men had can be explained almost entirely by the time periods in which they lived. Frederick Douglass had virtually no freedom whatsoever as an African-American in antebellum America. He was a slave and was treated as such. He could only wallow in his knowledge because his nonexistent social power prevented him from doing anything proactive. Malcolm X, on the other hand, had more political liberties than Douglass, but also more physical restriction. Unlike Douglass, who during errands could, however secretly, converse with and learn from neighbors, Malcolm X received the bulk of his life-changing education alone and within the confines of a prison building. He was watched by guards and lacked the first-hand experience in the outside world Douglass had. His isolation helped spur hateful feelings against the people who put him there, and society in general.

Malcolm X lived during the 1960s, and though blacks had fewer rights as compared to whites, blacks had more rights than during Douglass’ time. Also, the 1960s was an era when civil rights was becoming more equal for all races in America. Malcolm X had the opportunity to utilize his knowledge and apply it to the real world, a luxury Douglass was not granted. Another advantage Malcolm X had over Douglass was that, though he was regarded as inferior to whites, he was considered more than someone’s property. Frederick Douglass, though, who also worked diligently to become literate, first needed to establish himself as more than mere “chattel,” so obtaining a prominent position in society was a more arduous journey for him than it was for Malcolm X. He felt trapped by literacy the way Malcolm X was by iron bars, but unfortunately was too restricted as a slave. Malcolm X, consequently, had a higher opinion of education than Douglass did.

Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X were two African-American men from two different centuries. Due to their skin color, neither of them received official schooling- in fact, the majority of American society favored the suppression of their rights in general. Still, they rebelled against social norms and educated themselves. They used original ways to attain literacy and nurtured their intellectual prowess. Their strong characters helped them through, or perhaps were a result of, their long, tedious literary journeys. They had so much in common, yet because of the eras in which they lived, literacy impacted them in separate ways. Frederick Douglass, the enslaved 19th-century African-American who appreciated the empowerment and rued the actual knowledge his literacy brought, and Malcolm X, the controversial 20th century civil rights leader who voraciously absorbed words like a human sponge, and then synthesized his own ideas and opinions, both felt the major impact literacy had on their lives.



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