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Compose Yourself:Writing & Identity in Douglas, Williams & Walker

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Compose Yourself:Writing & Identity in Douglas, Williams & Walker

For the last several years, whenever I teach an introductory composition course I use an anthology of essays called Fields of Writing.One of the strengths of this collection is the exemplary diversity of its selections, and among the best of these are many essays by African Americans.I assign a number of these in the course, but four in particular I have found to be consistently useful in teaching basic ideas about composition. These four are Frederick Douglass's "Learning to Read & Write," Patricia Williams's "On Being the Object of Property,"and two by Alice Walker, "Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self" and "Am I Blue?" Each of these essays conveys a different aspect of the important link between literacy and identity, between the ability to express oneself and the process of knowing oneself. Let me explain what I mean by beginning with the oldest essay among this group, "Learning to Read & Write" by Frederick Douglas.

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Douglas's essay is a short excerpt from his Autobiography.It describes the laborious process he had to go through in order to teach himself how to read and write.Douglas informs us that, in the beginning of his education, his "mistress" had begun his instruction, but "in compliance with the advice and direction of her husband, not only ceased to instruct, but had set her face against my being instructed by any one else." Thus Douglas's situation becomes one in which he not only has to be his own teacher, he also has to, as he says, "resort to various stratagems" in order to outflank the considerable resistance to his acquisition of literacy.

Douglas's essay first teaches the students that, in circumstances which in fact resist the formation of an identity--in this case, Douglas's identity as a freely literate human being--then literacy and specifically writing is the only way to carve out a space for one's own thoughts. If the words that define you all belong to others--to his mistress and master--then his sense of his own identity is at the mercy of their words, and can, to a certain extent, only be expressed in their terms. As Douglas goes on to point out, it isn't until he is at least partially literate that he can fully conceive the nature of his lack of an independent identity. Without his own language, he has no way to see himself as separate from the world constructed by the language of those who control him.
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