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“Learning to Read and Write” and “Coming to the Awareness of Language” Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X

In the essays “Learning to Read and Write” and “Coming to the Awareness of Language,” Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X, respectively, write about the trials and tribulations they faced while attempting to educate themselves and conquer their illiteracy. While Douglass, although physically free, became increasingly and agonizingly aware of his own imprisonment through slavery, Malcolm X’s mind transcended the bars that imprisoned his body. For both Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X, learning to read and write was a radical act of self-consciousness. Malcolm X began his quest to learn to read and write to develop communication skills preferable to the “street” level. He wanted to converse and correspond in a way that he felt would command positive attention and respect.

While he hungered for both written expression and verbal articulation proficiency, it is not commonly known that Malcolm X was an up-and-coming student before he became a resident of Norfolk Prison Colony. An article in the Western Journal of Black Studies, Najee E. Muhammad noted: At Mason Junior High School, where he was the only student of African descent, he [then known as Malcolm Little] was ranked third in his class academically and elected president of his seventh-grade class. When he expressed an interest in becoming a lawyer, his seventh-grade teacher suggested that he become a carpenter instead, stating: A lawyer that’s no realistic goal for a nigger. (Muhammad 240)

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On the other hand, Frederick Douglass set out on a similar quest as a means to discover the knowledge and education that he was denied as a slave. He longed to put into words the many meanings of the word freedom that he could not articulate, and he set about educating himself at great personal risk. His slave mistress, who briefly opened the door to learning, tried to close it when her husband instructed her that teaching a slave to read was unacceptable. Once opened, however, the door could not be closed, and Douglass was determined to continue learning independently. Although both Malcolm X and Douglass used copying as a way of learning to write, Malcolm X had the clear advantage of access to a dictionary, paper, proper writing utensils, and the freedom to use them. In contrast, Douglass was forced to be creative with the only items and surfaces available to him, chalk and the pavement or a brick wall (Douglass 199) among them, to obtain the knowledge he craved.

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While Malcolm X spent many hours carefully writing out the words in the dictionary “…down to the punctuation marks” (Malcolm X 18) on a pad and repeating them out loud to himself in an attempt to memorize them, Douglass found it necessary to use subterfuge and to cleverly manipulate the white youngsters in the neighbourhood into teaching him what he was so eager to learn. In exchange for scraps of food, they became his willing tutors. When he challenged them to prove that they could write better than he, they unwittingly provided him with new lessons, bringing him closer to his goal. When Malcolm X moved beyond the mere awareness of his limitations by painstakingly copying the words and definitions in the dictionary page by page, he succeeded not only in expanding his word base but in improving his penmanship as well. He was fascinated with this new world of discovery and information and found freedom in the pages of the many books he devoured as well as in the letters he wrote.

Malcolm X experienced a sense of elation with each new word and phrase. Still, for Douglass, in addition to the possible physical dangers of discovery by his masters, the education he was acquiring had severe psychological repercussions. His enlightenment made the inescapable knowledge of his position as a slave and the injustices of being owned by another human being unbearable and brought him to the point of almost suicidal despair. He wished himself as ignorant and unknowing as his fellow slaves (Douglass 197). However, his introduction to the word “abolitionist” was the lifeline that rescued him from the pit of depression and possible self-destruction. He noted, “If a slave ran away and succeeded in getting clear, or if a slave killed his master, set fire to a barn, or did anything very wrong in the mind of a slaveholder, it was spoken of as the fruit of abolition” (Douglass 197).

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This newfound knowledge, coupled with the possibility of escape, provided the motivation and courage Douglass needed to persevere toward his dream of intellectual freedom and physical independence. As a result, Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X succeeded in becoming two of the most highly regarded speakers and writers of their times. These men, born 100 years apart, one enslaved and one imprisoned, overcame insurmountable physical and psychological odds to attain the freedom through literacy that they each so deeply desired; odds which would daunt, and perhaps defeat, even the most driven person today.

Works Cited

  • Douglass, Frederick. “Learning to Read and Write” 75 Readings Across the Curriculum:
  • An Anthology. Ed.Chris Anson. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008. 194-199.
  • Muhammad, Najee E. “The Educational Development of Malcolm X.” Western Journal of Black Studies 26 (2002): 240-47. Academic Search Premier. Ebscohost. Holy
  • Family U Lib.. 25 Oct. 2008 <>.
  • X, Malcolm. “Coming to an Awareness of Language” 75 Readings Across the
  • Curriculum: An Anthology. Ed.Chris Anson. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008. 194-199.

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"Learning to Read and Write" and "Coming to the Awareness of Language" Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X. (2021, Aug 13). Retrieved December 1, 2022, from