Last Updated 05 Jan 2023

The Importance of Education for African-Americans in Everyday Use and the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

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American's have utilized education as a tool to combat the marginalizing effects of the broader society and culture. Described by Fredrick Douglass as "the pathway from slavery to freedom" (1041), educational attainment created opportunities for Black women and men to ascend socially, compete with Whites economically, and assert their humanity in a country intent on denying it. In a country with a vested interest in keeping African-Americans from reading and writing, the fight for literacy has been a crucial part of the Black identity. Under that analysis, one can understand its frequency as a theme in works of literature by Black authors. However, it is a theme often accompanied by unique social implications that sometimes prove to be problematic. As the term itself implies, to be an African-American is to be a liminal figure.

Historically, people of African descent in the United States have had to operate on two cultural fronts simultaneously -- particularly for those with significant levels of education. For various reasons the realities of unequal educationand disenfranchisement sometimes result in rifts between the "educated" class and the "uneducated" or "less-educated" classes. Throughout history, the unequal distribution of literacy among people of color has occasionally proven to be a source of familial strife, guilt, and conflicts within the self. Alice Walker's Everyday Use and the Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass, an American Slaveare texts that explore the obvious benefits of literacy and education among Black Americans, while simultaneously examining the potential conflicts that stem from educational attainment.

Walker's text appears well over a century after Douglass's. In Everyday Use Walker echoes elements of Douglass's philosophy on literacy as a stepping-stone. Dee, who prefers to be called "Wangero" (2636), is the beautiful and well-educated daughter of the narrator in Walker's text. While not a slave like Douglass, her upbringing in a house with "three rooms", a "tin" roof and "no real windows, (Walker 2635) indicates that she comes from a poor rural background under less than ideal conditions. Dee's leaving for school in Augusta is akin to Douglass's transition from the plantation to Baltimore that "laid the all [his] subsequent prosperity" (1040).

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In both instances, we see that access to education introduced both Dee and Douglass to "entirely new train[s] of thought" (Douglass 1041). Through literacy, the subjects of the texts are able to foster their own sense of freedom, and gaininsight into the worlds in which they live. Dee becomes hyper-aware of the realities of racism and changes her name in order to distance herself from the people that "oppress" (Walker 2636) her while Douglass concludes that the "white man's power" to enslave (1041) is largely attributed keeping slaves from reading. Thus, Douglass knowing that his master believed reading would "spoil" (1041) him, made education the thing that he “most desired”.

While Walker and Douglass both examine education as a critical step on the ladder to upward mobility, they also explore the fact that education does not provide insulation from the realities of being an African-American. Likewise, they examine some ways in which educated Black men and Women navigate being educated while so many of their people are denied the very same right. Dee and Douglass are both confronted with the fact that while they have ascended to a degree, the condition of their people is still "wretched" and "without...remedy" (Douglass 1044). Douglass is forced to leave Baltimore for another plantation and Dee takes a trip back home and faces the rural community she left behind. Here, we begin to see conflicts take shape. Bringing new perspectives into old environments where most people are uneducated or illiterate creates difficult territory to navigate. In these texts, we see elitism, guilt, confusion and regret as themes when the world's of literacy and illiteracy collide.

Through the narrating mother's lament, Walker reveals that Dee often uses her educational background to demean and belittle her mother and her sister Maggie. Dee's mother was only able to complete the "second grade" (Walker 2635) before the school shut its doors and Maggie is described as knowing "she is not bright” (Walker 2635). Knowing they were victims of circumstances beyond their control, Dee still read to them "without pity" and "burned [them] with...knowledge" (Walker 2635). Dee's air of superiority is exacerbated by her disrespect for the family traditions, namesakes and heirlooms. Some might conclude that Dee's advice to Maggie that she "make something" (Walker 2639) out of herself because it's a “new day" (Walker 2639) for African American's, is a pretentious self-exaltation masquerading as encouragement. Sadly for Dee, her educational attainment provided her with a degree of success while simultaneously driving a wedge between herself and her family.

If the dark side of Dee's literacy lies in her relationships, Douglass's issues are the result of internalized conflict.

While he credits his "enjoyment of freedom" (1040) to becoming literate, Douglass also discusses the mental and emotional distress that his newfound knowledge brings him. We see a degree of elitism in Douglass's writing when he speaks of his envying his counterparts' "stupidity" (1044) or when describing himself as "the first, last and only choice" (1040)among his fellow slaves. It would appear however, that these statements are coming from a place of self-pityand sadness rather than arrogance. Further contrasting Dee and Douglass is the fact that most of Douglass's conflict is internal and not dependent upon his relationships with others.

Also, we do not see the same degree of blatant and intentional disrespect for his less fortunate comrades. Douglass is forced to leave Baltimore and begin work as a field hand. While Douglass's reading had provided him with "the power or truth" in order to express his opposition to the system that held him in bondage, his status as a slave remained unchanged. Thus he was left without an effective outlet to assert his dignity and humanity. He describes himself as "tormented" (1044) by his knowledge and "everlasting thinking" (1044).

For better or for worst, these texts demonstrate that because of America's racial history, the ideas of educationand literacy are filtered through a racial lens for African- Americans. While Walker's text portrays a character that appears to be antagonistic at times in comparison to Douglass, they both serve to illustrate the complex and nuanced territory of being Black and educated in a systemically unequal society.

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