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Literary Traditions: Education and Political Activism

[By Kenton Rambsy]

I first encountered Frederick Douglass’s The Heroic Slave during my sophomore year at Morehouse College in Atlanta. At the time, I had read his slave narrative and become thoroughly familiar with his pursuits of literacy despite great social, economic, and racial barriers. Reading his novella, though, gave me a chance to reconsider the links between literacy and emancipation from physical bondage.

The Heroic Slave sought to dispel ideas about slavery during the time of its publication. Douglass criticized Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, because of the manner in which it portrayed African Americans as being passive and incapable of demanding their freedom from slavery. Robert S. Levine’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Frederick Douglass’ Paper: An Analysis of Reception” highlights Douglass’s concerns with Stowe’s work by suggesting that “Douglass believed that the most effective way to combat slavery was to champion political activism over moral suasion” (72 ).

Douglass was an advocate for finding methods on how “to elevate the black man” and encourage African Americans to take an active, hands-on role in the political realm of their communities (77). Douglass preferred to agitate, rather than ask, for freedom. Encouraging black people to become more active agitators for liberation and self-determination was key to gaining freedom as opposed to taking a passive approach.

In the case of The Heroic Slave, Douglass projects eloquence in speech and knowledge of history as key tools for people to master in order to acquire freedom. The story’s protagonist, Madison Washington, displays a high aptitude for conveying ideas: “when he (Madison Washington) did speak, it was with the utmost propriety. His words were well chosen, and his pronunciation equal to that of any school master. It was a mystery to us where he got his knowledge of language; but as little was said to him, none of us knew the extent of his intelligence and ability till it was too late” (Douglass 233). 

This particular description helps to connect ideas concerning freedom and education, insisting that slaves seek more than simply physical freedom. Fictional representations of black men in America often suggest that literacy a vital component to the social liberation in a number of novels such as:
Martin Delany’s Blake; or, the Huts of America (1862)
Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada (1976)
Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage (1990)
Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle (1996) 
Percival Everett’s Erasure (2001)
In the past, I typically thought about one or two novels at a time. However, the “100 Novels Project” has given me an opportunity to think about how topics like education and freedom appear throughout the African American literary tradition. The project also makes it possible for me to chart recurring patterns in black novels. 

One thought on “Literary Traditions: Education and Political Activism

  1. My first introduction to Douglass was Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass in middle school. It was my Dad's way of teaching me MY history from a hero's perspective. He was concerned about me learning Black history as a narrative of defeat; and thought that an introduction of Douglass would draw perspective…and it did. It helped me to learn about perseverance and the importance of identity.

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