Disrupting and Expanding the Notion of “Self-Taught”

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[By Kenton Rambsy]
Over the past month, I have commented on the particular ways in which a number of authors provide us readers with useful information concerning their views of how African American men acquire and share knowledge. These fictional representations have led me to think about autobiographical examples, specifically the narratives of Frederick Douglass and Richard Wright and the overall tradition of education in African American literature and literacy as a tool for gaining higher degrees of social agency.
Douglass’s The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) is regarded as one of the most prominent narratives written by a former slave. 100 years later, Wright’s autobiography Black Boy (1945) became a totem of American literature as readers follow his coming of age experiences in the Jim Crow South and as he migrated to the North.
Douglass and Wright are often praised for their seemingly individual accomplishments and apparently unique personal qualities. However, the collective nature of individual accomplishment is frequently overlooked.
Reading representations of black men acquiring knowledge in novels as well as autobiographies has troubled me especially considering how my own attempts at becoming literate were hardly an individual feats.
In their essay, “A Review of Theory and Research,” Glynda Hull and Katherine Schultz have explained that “considerable literacy and language-based components” develop “as part of a variety of community activities” beyond formal classrooms (576). Douglass writes in detail about how he used various networks to learn how to read and write and how he expanded his thinking in order to overcome mental barriers of slavery.
Douglass’s descriptions underscore the significance of opportunity and community in the narrative of a black male slave struggling for freedom during the 19th century. Similarly, Wright describes his coming of age experiences and how becoming an avid reader allowed Wright to become a navigate much more diverse social circles of college students and blue-collar workers.    
Douglass’s and Wright’s narratives exposes readers to various ways that opportunity and communal support assisted these two men in cultivating their educational abilities and, more importantly, their places in society. Paying particular attention to the aspects of their lives that led to the cultivation of their reading abilities reveals a larger network of factors, which helped to facilitate their achievements.