115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Riding in Cars with Frederick Douglass

Emma Stapely, "University of California, Riverside"

This paper argues that the overtly masculine poetics of literacy in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass are in fact underwritten by feminist understandings of teaching and learning as embodied practices without a proper time or place.  I suggest that a reading of Douglass on these terms might render him surprisingly relatable for first-time, feminist-identifying readers, and potentially empowering to contemporary student bodies who encounter the university ever more through structures of debt.


Though it is among the most teachable texts in the nineteenth-century American literary canon, Frederick Douglass’s iconic Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) can prove challenging in the classroom for readers hailing from black and Latina feminist traditions.  There is a long and illustrious critical bibliography on Douglass that calls our attention to the masculine poetics of this text and its vision of filial liberation, from Douglass’s initial non-recognition of his mother’s love, to his restaging of Aunt Hester’s abuse, to his fight with Covey and the occlusion of his wife’s central role in his escape.  A first reading of the Narrative can thus seem in many ways to align the very possibility of freedom with leaving black women behind.  Of course, careful contextualization reveals a more nuanced picture: one that is constrained, in the first place, by Douglass’s urgent contestation of the antebellum U.S.’s racialized scripts for national manhood; and qualified, in the second, by his complex re-visioning of his autobiographical project, as well as his explicit feminist advocacy, over a prolific forty-year career in print and at the podium.  Yet the question remains—to what extent does Douglass open a vision of liberation in his 1845 autobiography that is available to women, in his time or our own?  What would it mean to read and write Douglass’s Narrative as a feminist text?  And how might this transform the very notions of critical reading and writing as students tend to encounter them in university settings? 

My paper approaches these questions through what I call the underground politics of literacy in the 1845 Narrative.  As many others have noted, literacy appears to emerge in Douglass’s text as the central term in an emancipatory dialectic that can be construed in psychoanalytic terms as a contest for access to the symbolic Law of the Father.  It is what spills over from this account that interests me.  Focusing on his descriptions of his illicit education in Baltimore’s streets, shipyards, and drawing rooms, I suggest that Douglass furnishes an account of reading and writing as non-individualistic, non-linear, and anti-hierarchical practices that are sustained by the recognizably feminist insight that learning does not have a proper locus.  Between the “new train of thought” that initiates Douglass’s quest for literacy and the railcar he hops to get out of Baltimore lies a feminine passage that does not move in straight lines: a passage that we can access, moreover, by reading with the grain of the text.  Whether by converting street urchins into writing tutors, or practicing his letters on walls, I argue that Douglass unfurls an account of what Fred Moten has called “the knowledge of freedom” at once richly compatible with black and Latina feminist challenges to bordered epistemologies and potentially empowering for non-traditional and feminist-identifying student bodies whose encounters with the university are increasingly burdened by economic and cultural structures of debt.