An analysis of two seminal works from African-American literature, both drawn from the authors’ autobiographies, reveals that the processes of learning to read and write is conceptualized as the means of personal and social liberation. While Frederick Douglass’s “Learning to Read and Write,” a chapter from his ”Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave“ was written in 1845 and Malcolm X’s “Learning to Read,” an excerpt from his ”The Autobiography of Malcolm X“, was written more than a century later in 1965, common themes can be identified. The analysis of these themes helps provide the reader with a sense of historical continuity that defines African American civil rights movements. The two texts demonstrate how important the basic reading and writing skills that so many people take for granted become the simple tools that can facilitate profound and lasting personal and social change. As both of these works reveal, there is an important connection between the concept of freedom and the process of writing, reading and becoming fully educated.

Both Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X devote an extensive amount of detail to describing the processes by which they learned to read and write, and, as important, the obstacles that they confronted in order to do so. Douglass explains that he had to acquire his reading and writing skills surreptitiously and, in one of the important quotes from “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” regarding literacy, it is said, He “had no regular teacher” (para. 1), and his owner and his mistress consider slavery and education to be incompatible. Douglass equates illiteracy with living in a “mental darkness” (para. 1), and from an early age, he devotes himself to learning first how to read and then how to write by appealing to the kindness and the egos of young white boys, whom he challenges to word duels. Just as with Malcolm X, Douglass thrills at the challenges of learning to read and write and sees this as part of the road to his salvation from the “mental darkness” that once enslaved him. Similarly, Malcolm X responds to his intense passion to learn to read by creating the conditions that made such learning possible despite challenging circumstances. While in prison, Malcolm X teaches himself to read by going through the dictionary page by page. In order to concretize what he has learned, he copies every single page, and years later, he can recall words and images that astonished him. He explained in one of the important quotes from ”The Autobiography of Malcolm X“, “I’d never realized so many words existed! I didn’t know which words I needed to learn” (para. 6). Both of Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass understood the power of language and as their progressed toward their goals of fluency, each was amazed at his ability and in awe at the opportunities afforded by such skills.

Both Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X sense that words can be powerful agents of both a personal as well as a vast social change. In their autobiographies, both men offer homage to the texts that opened their minds and shaped their perspectives on social conditions and politics. Douglass is deeply moved by an exchange between a slave and his master in The Columbian Orator; Malcolm X is equally provoked by a number of books on a wide range of subjects. He starts with a history of Africans and African Americans, acknowledging the influence of seminal texts such as  The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B DuBois and Woodson’s Negro History. Then, he branches out and begins to learn about oppression throughout the world; the historical and sociological texts that he reads give him a broad social consciousness that shaped his political thoughts and actions. By harnessing the power of the written word and literacy, both Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass are able to understand their lives within the context of the experiences of others and can thus go on to share with others this same gift.

Between these two essays, both men also recognize that white people in positions of power find their command of language to be threatening and both writers also recognize that becoming educated makes them the targets of fury and outrage. Douglass describes his otherwise kind mistress in one of theimportant quotes from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass as “rush[ing] at me with a face made all up of fury, and snatch[ing] from me a newspaper, in a manner that fully revealed her apprehension” (para. 2) as he is caught learning to read the same books her children do. Similarly,  Malcolm X was fully aware of his verbal agility, observing that he was “the most articulate hustler out there [on the streets],” (para. 3). Yet he is humbled by the realization that when it came to writing, he was bereft of the skills necessary to convey his ideas as convincingly as he knew he was capable of. He acknowledges that speech is a crucial part of how people perceive and relate to one another, and he states that “Many who today hear me somewhere in person, or on television, or those who read something I’ve said, will think I went to school far beyond the eighth grade” (para. 3).

Ultimately, as this thesis statement for “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and Frederick Douglass narratives makes clear, both Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X convey how crucial the processes of learning how to read and write were to their personal development and the definition of their social consciousness and their role in the abolition and civil rights movements, respectively. Words, they explain, have the power to move people, transform people and, more importantly, to liberate them. Malcolm X explains that “I never had been so truly free in my life” (para. 11) and“reading had changed forever the course of my life…. [T]he ability to read awoke inside me some long dor­mant craving to be mentally alive” (para. 40).The persistent importance and centrality of both of these works to African American literature, in particular, and American literature, in general, affirm the authors’ conclusions. Reading and writing become agents for personal and social liberation, as ideas are learned, shared, and acted upon.

Other articles in our Literature Archives related to this topic include : Freedom, Liberty, and Meaning in the Slave Narrative: Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and Olaudah Equiano  •   Opposing Representations of Christianity in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass   •     The Incompatibility of Education and Slavery in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass    •   Analysis of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes    •    The Role of Education and Literacy in Slave Narratives (Douglass, Washington, Equiano)    •     Slavery in America’s South : Implications and Effects