Reading for Social Change – Narratives of Fredrick Douglass, Malcolm X and David Raymond

Reading and writing play a crucial and fundamental role in the quest to change the prevailing state of affairs within an environment. Unjust situations cannot be corrected if the people within them do not recognize the situation as unjust, if the people within them do not acquire the knowledge necessary to inform themselves that the treatment they receive is indeed degrading and that they, as individuals, are undeserving of it. The achievement of basic skills of literacy can catapult an individual to great avenues that lead to achievements that he/she would not have thought possible in his/her current illiterate state. Reading creates ideas within an individual, effectively nurtures those ideas with each additional piece of information that the individual gathers from reading, creates aspirations, develops the individual’s personality which in turn dictates the attitudes that this individual will display towards his environment, his subsequent actions within it and shapes perspectives on the world and guides the individual to fulfilment.

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            Through reading, individuals are able to realize the dynamics of their situations, develop new and informed attitudes and take actions that will lead to effective change. This paper seeks to examine the ways that individuals can/have individuals use(d) reading to foster change and the challenges encountered as one tries to attain literacy through the exploration of the literacy narratives of Fredrick Douglass, Malcolm X and David Raymond.

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Fredrick Douglass was born into slavery in the early decades of the 19th century, how then is it that he went on to become a notable anti-slavery lobbyist, an eloquent speaker, a newspaper editor and as of 1889, the United States minister to Haiti? This question is best answered through Douglas’ narrative which embodies the search for African American Identity, freedom, the fight for the emancipation of this race of people and the role of reading in the achievement of these objectives.

As a young slave, Douglass reports being unable to recall whom his father was, having no knowledge of his age and not feeling the need to personalize these inadequacies because every slave he knew about had no such knowledge. In fact, as Douglass reports, it was the wish of the slave masters to keep the slaves ignorant and denying them access to any kind of information was a way they hoped to achieve this. Most slaves like Douglass were not as lucky as he was to have been the recipient of his master’s wife’s earlier show of generosity towards slaves. She made the initial ‘error’ of treating him “as she supposed one human being ought to treat another” (Douglass, 1845, P100) and even took initiatives to ensure that he was slightly educated by teaching him “the alphabet” (Douglass, 1845 p101). However, this initial streak of good fortune for Douglass does not last long as his mistress withdraws her tutoring services, changes her attitude towards the entire subject of his education and is often incensed when she finds Douglass making efforts to improve upon the skills she had taught him by reading a newspaper or a book (Douglass, 1845).

This narrative reveals the true utility of ignorance as a tool for the oppressor to maintain effective control upon the oppressed. Denying the oppressed access to any form of knowledge, any form of information that will reveal the inconsistencies of his current oppressed state with that of a normal human being with his similar attributes makes the oppressed individual unwilling to question the direction of his oppressor, accepting of his condition as normal or even ideal and perpetuates the cycle of oppression that is unlikely to reach its culmination unless someone can break it through reading. Douglass continues to read despite the repeated warnings he receives from his owners, he befriends and bribes the neighbourhood children with bread so they could give him “the more valuable bread of knowledge” (Douglass, 1845 p101), he practices his writing skills on Master Thomas’ spelling books, exploited every opportunity that would present itself at his disposal to access the viable ways of acquiring literacy and is incredibly successful (Douglass, 1845).

Douglass’ success at being literate opens up the world for him, he is able to see the realities of slavery as an institution, to discover that he as a black person was an individual, equal to the white man and deserving full human access to fundamental human rights and there was no law, natural or otherwise that pre-specified his place in the world was to be under the service of the white man for his entire life. Reading had thus achieved its primary function for Douglass, provision of information and through this the onset of Douglass’ mental emancipation. Acquiring literacy gives one access to stories from all over the world, through these Journals and stories the world opens up along with the possibilities contained within it.

One is able to visualize the extent of an unjust condition, broaden one’s scope and knowledge of the situation and bring one in to contact with tactics that other people around the world are using to foster change in the same situation. This was especially true for Douglass. Through his reading, he meets with Sheridan’s speeches and from the Columbian Orator, he got the sense of the bold denunciation of slavery by slave and the powerful vindication of human rights that result from it. Douglass’s perception of the world is forever changed as a result of the reading, he interprets his situation differently and he sees the condition of slavery in a clearer light, along with all the powerlessness that comes along with it, he is consequently displeased, restless and uncomfortable with the harsh realities of his existence (Douglass, 1845).

 In a way, the slave owner was right to object to teaching Douglass how to read and write. What resulted from his persistence and eagerness to defy his master was sadness, discontent, torment and anguish. He could now detect the inconsistencies in slavery, he could see that slavery was not right and he had been given the strength to fight the system and restore his identity as a man not subject to another. Douglass could no longer conform to the ideals of slavery anymore, he was no longer mentally enslaved. Through reading, he had thus attained mental freedom. He was halfway down the path to freedom where he could define himself, the things around him, express himself in his own terms, in his own words and live his life by his own terms. Through reading, Douglass went ahead to make great achievements, became a champion for African American civil rights and even Women’s rights.

While for Douglass reading became the tool to achieving mental freedom for Malcolm X reading uncovered the extent of the historical injustices committed against people of colour by the white people. Unlike Douglass, Malcom had actually received preliminary education, he just could not use his education to communicate effectively. This often left him feeling frustrated when he tried to write letters to Mr Elijah Muhammad, thus begun a fresh struggle to attain a reasonable education through the painstaking task of copying down the entire dictionary! (X, 1965).

Though unorthodox, Malcolm’s method broadened his word base, improved his handwriting and enabled him to pick up any book and actually understand what it was saying. True to the words of Mr Elijah Muhammad, history had indeed been “whitened” and Malcolm was able to discover how insufficient his education had been. How the conscious effort of the white man to discount the role of the black man from history had left gaps in his knowledge and rendered the black man with no formal identity, with no utility in a classroom other than as a subject for laughter (X, 1965, P3).  Malcolm sought to fill this gap in knowledge, he read books by Will Durant, H. G. Wells, W. E. B. Du Bois just to get “a glimpse into black people’s history” before they came to America (X, 1965 P4).  From here, he went deeper and eventually uncovered the realities and horror of slavery and the white man’s role in it. He realized the “variety of suffering and exploitation” that people of colour had suffered as a result of the willful actions of the white man. He caught a glimpse into the “promises, trickery and manipulation” that the white man had used on the people of India to control them (X, 1965, P5), how hundreds of millions of black people had been killed during the slave trade at the hands of the ruthless white man and how the white man had arrived in foreign lands disguised as Christian traders and used this as his “initial wedge” before the commencement of ruthless plunder and conquest (X, 1965, P5). 

As Malcolm reports, Reading changed the course of his life completely, it awoke something inside him that was dormant and had always been craving to be “mentally alive” (X, 1965, P6).  After prison, Malcolm went one to become one of the most powerful and articulate leaders of the black American society in the 60s and developed the strategy of separatism to inculcate a sense of self-identity among black people (X, 1965. P1). His actions in promoting this strategy were so critical that he was assassinated in 1965. If Malcolm had not picked up a book, he would have died a lowly robber and would not have left behind a legacy that credits him with underscoring the value of a truly free populace and demonstrating the great lengths that individuals will go to, to secure freedom.

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For Malcolm and Douglass, reading became the very thing that set the foundation for the great legacy they would leave behind and the great achievements they would make regardless of the oppressive systems in place to ensure there would be no such outcome. Reading became the tool to break away from injustices and bring an entire race of people along with them. However, being unable to read does not have to interfere with your ability to generate effective ideas for social change and champion for black separation like Malcolm X, it can interfere with the most basic, most primal functions that we often take for granted.

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Imagine being unable to navigate through your bus schedule, being unable to order in a restaurant menu, unable to text your friends using your cellphone, to express your thoughts to other people, feeling isolated because you lack the tools to show others that you are actually intelligent. One only needs to observe the frustration that David Raymond goes through while he tries to navigate the challenges he encounters while learning how to read and write as a result of being dyslexic (Raymond, 1976). Learning from the camp director that he has a high IQ is not enough to prove to him that he is not ‘dumb’ as he has wrongfully concluded, he needs further assurance that can only be achieved by learning how to read himself and not having to depend on others to type his essays, read novels or having to attend frequent special education classes (Raymond, 1976, P198).

Raymond frequently experiences “a lack” and this lack is relatable all over the world. One such instance where I could relate to this narrative is my experience reading a foreign text, I find myself mindlessly staring at the content, marvelling at its complexity and concluding that I am quite unintelligent if I cannot fathom what the text is saying. Even simple statements and words have the capacity to perplex you if you cannot read as Raymond reports and it doesn’t help when there is constant taunting from your classmates (Raymond, 1976) 

To further elaborate on the value of learning how to read, I will draw a specific example from my readings on gender inequality in education. According to the proceedings of the 1996 world conference on literacy, the choice of becoming literate is denied to some groups in India by not informing them of its existence and utility or making the choice to stay illiterate for them. Women, in particular, are shut out of the education system which is almost exclusively left for males from affluent families.

Women often express feelings of isolation especially when they leave the confines of rural life to the cities where oral traditions hold little to no value (Samant, 1996).  They have to constantly depend on literate people who live in the city, they cannot seek formal employment and have to live in the slums in utter poverty. An example is drawn from a group of women who wanted to submit a petition to the police protesting the presence of illegal alcohol dens in the community and were unable to write one up for themselves let alone “sign one that was prepared for them” (Samant, 1996 p3).

This example is an accurate depiction of the kind of impotence that not knowing how to read can create within society. People will have great ideas for social change but will not be able to present them in a form that can benefit anyone. When one is illiterate one becomes invisible, one cannot read about their legal rights, cannot become financially or physically independent and may not be able to overcome the obstacles that serve to lock individuals in a cycle of poverty and social disadvantage (Samant, 1996). Moreover, this individual will never know what exactly their rights are, this creates an avenue for exploitation, discrimination and contributes to the helplessness and inequality that exacerbates cases such as domestic violence and intimate partner violence.

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From the discussion presented above, it is clear that reading is a fundamental tool that acts as the foundation for any initiatives aimed at achieving social change as is evident from the narratives presented by Malcolm X and Fredric Douglass. Without reading, individuals will never be able to identify the inconsistencies in action that make up an unjust situation and will never react to it and even if they can identify these inconsistencies, they will lack the tools for effective change as is seen from the example of the women group in India. In spite of the significant challenges that come with reading as seen from the narrative presented by Raymond, it is a worthwhile venture that will foster personal freedom, awaken the spirit if activism and lead the individual to the ultimate goal of self-fulfilment.

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