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

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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But when he begins to read, immediately his mind is freed to imagine a world wider than that of his heretofore limited existence--and soon thereafter follows a desire for an even greater freedom, not only of his mind but of his body and spirit, as well.

But it is especially in the metaphors Douglas uses to describe his situation, both before and after he becomes literate, that we find one of the finest expressions of just how central writing is to the conception of the self--and of others. For instance, he refers to his mistress as initially "lack[ing] the depravity necessary to shutting me up in mental darkness"; but then she sets herself against his becoming literate, a process he describes as "the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness." The control of his body is hers; but the control of the conception of her identity belongs to Douglas because the words that construct her are his; and in the choice of those words, an independent Douglas--a person formed from independent ideas and desires--is taking shape. She, on the other hand, is reduced from a complex and compassionate woman to someone who is "made all up of fury," who is, significantly, voiceless. She doesn't speak, she merely reacts out of violence to his desire to read; she doesn't write, she merely opposes his every attempt to learn how to write himself. She is no longer a fully realized human being, in a sense, but is rather a simple, raw, mindless emotion, which is quite clearly the emotion of elemental fear. Douglas, by contrast, has grown immensely from what even he calls a "brute" to someone who sees themselves as much more complex. He has acquired a repertoire of words and images with which to describe his situation, his mistress and, more importantly, himself. It could be said that he has acquired, in his own eyes and those of the reader, an intellect and, because of that intellect, a much deeper and more compelling identity.

It is clear throughout Douglas's essay that illiteracy and all efforts to enforce illiteracy on others are associated with mindless fear--as he puts it, that "education and slavery were incompatible with one another"; while the human character he finds in books is marked above and beyond all else by the effective use of reason. For instance, he refers to a book called Columbia Orator, which is filled with various arguments against the oppression of one group by any other group. In it he finds a dialogue between an escaped slave and his master, wherein the rhetoric of the slave is so convincing--the identity of intellectual power so undeniable--that the slave is emancipated. The lesson here is clear: the ability to express oneself is equated with the act of creating oneself, or in this case re-creating oneself; and that new identity is so compelling, the old identity can no longer have any force, linguistically or legally.

Douglas's essay teaches another important aspect of literacy when he writes of his pre-literate thoughts as "dying away for want of utterance." In other words, the idea that cannot be expressed cannot be long sustained; and that is exactly the relationship between the new Douglas and his growing literacy: this new identity cannot be fully expressed with only half a vocabulary, as it were, with the words of freedom but the reality of slavery. He writes of how his growing knowledge of the world, achieved through literacy, resulted in a growing awareness of just how narrow that world was; and of how a new world, a world available to him only through the language of self-expression, looms on the horizon.

When I teach this essay I ask my students to think of Douglas's struggle in terms of their own lives. Now, since none of them will ever have had to go through a struggle to attain literacy similar to Douglas's, I ask them to think of something else they've truly wanted but which it was a struggle for them to attain, whether that was skill in a particular sport or with a musical instrument or some academic subject. I ask them to think of the hardest they've ever worked to achieve anything, something where the odds were actually against them achieving their goal. Many of them have a very difficult time with this exercise; they look back over their lives, and it doesn't seem there are such struggles for them, their education guaranteed, their homes and friends for the most part secure and easily available. But after some work they usually are able to come up with some skill attained or goal achieved which was indeed difficult, perhaps the most difficult victory of their lives. I then ask them to write about how this victory shaped their identity, to what extent their conception of themselves changed due to this achievement. Typically, their writing reveals that struggling with and overcoming some limitation is one of the most important if not the most important aspect in their conception of who they are and what they're capable of doing. When we read these assignments out loud in class, the students typically express a new understanding of just how fundamental Douglas's struggle for literacy was to the formation of his new free, self-owned identity, and that the exercise has given them a new appreciation for the centrality of literacy to anyone's sense of who they are and what they can achieve.
<!--[if !supportEmptyParas]-->Patricia Williams's essay is about a different aspect of literacy and identity formation. In "On Being an Object of Property," Williams also writes of a struggle to define herself, but in this case her struggle is against the identity-limiting forces of her own family and community, as well as that of the larger society.Largely the identity these groups want to force on her is one composed primarily of stereotypes. For instance, her mother stereotypically sees Williams's facility for legal thinking as a result of a distant white relative who was a lawyer; and when she enters college, most of her companions wish to stereotype her based on cultural myths about women, about smart women, about smart African American women, etc., etc.

Thus part of William's essay is about her search for an identity free of all these stereotypes. For instance, she researches her background to try and find a more definite sense of ancestry and heritage; but most of her researches come to a dead end, as there simply is no written record of her relatives beyond a certain point. This moment in the essay certainly makes one fundamental point about writing and identity: if you cannot write, or if your writing isn't deemed important enough to preserve, then the portion of your descendants' identity which is dependent on their heritage is a blank, in a sense a white page upon which nothing is written.It is of course then all too easy for the powers that be to fill in that blank page with their own writing, with the words and images they choose to define you.

William's essay also demonstrates how stereotypes are represented in the actual mechanics of discourse, which is to say that, if we possess only limited means of expressing ourselves--and I mean that in the most literal sense of communicating to the external world who we are--then the self we communicate is also limited; and by the same dynamic, our ability to relate to the expression of other selves is likewise limited. Williams teaches us that stereotypes rely on limitations: of knowledge, of expression, of understanding.Stereotypes are the marker of illiteracy, and by that I mean emotional as well as intellectual illiteracy. The discourse one uses to discuss other people is quite probably the discourse one uses to describe oneself; those who see others as stereotypes are limited to a stereotypical understanding of their own identity.
Perhaps the most important point of her essay, for my purposes, is when she talks about how certain racial stereotypes don't just make assumptions about some abstract group of strangers, but rather make very personal and hurtful statements about her, personally. Williams demonstrates that the resistance to such stereotyping requires a person to define themselves in their own terms, not those of other people; to set out the things that make them unique, who they are, to articulate their own identity and to resist through that articulation attempts to define them indirectly through their inclusion in group stereotypes. Thus writing becomes for Williams an act which allows her to find herself as distinct from her missing past and her stereotyped present--in other words, as a fully-realized and self-defined person instead of a one-dimensional and other-defined object. But her writings also give her a power which allows her to defend herself, to literally construct who she is out of the building blocks of her own words, her own ideas, her own past, her own dreams and desires.

This is an extremely important message, I think, for college students no matter what their background. They are at a stage in the development of their self image when they are expressly told to learn: about the world, about other people, and about themselves; a stage where they are supposed to be open to learning new ideas and perspectives. And so this time presents the opportunity to make self-confidence, what we might call self-definition a part of that identity in ways perhaps greater that at any other point in their lives.
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Alice Walker's two essays are about learning what it means to be an individual, with individual values, and even individual fears, through the exercise of self-exploring prose. In "Beauty: When the other Dancer is the Self," Walker reveals herself--and I mean this in many senses--to be someone who's struggled mightily with her self-image, her physical self-image. Due to a childhood accident, her eye was scarred, and for many years afterward Walker believed this scarring fundamentally changed who she was and how other people thought of her. While she discovered over time that the latter was not necessarily true--her family seemed to think she hadn't changed at all after the accident--the former concern eventually became more important than the scar itself; that is, her obsession with the scar had become what we might call a psychic scar, which, though not visible, effected her behavior and her sense of herself more than the physical scar ever could. It was through the act of writing--of revealing her true self to herself--that Walker came to terms with who she was.

This example of a psychic wound and the damage it can inflict long after physical damage is healed teaches the students both that others pay far less attention to such things than we often pay to them ourselves, but more importantly that through articulating her fears about the physical scar Walker found the way through to a true healing of the psychic scar. By writing about who she feared she'd become after the accident, she discovered who'd she truly was both before and after the accident, and came to realize that she was who she was partially because of the accident.It was a part of her life, it was a part of her.

Similarly, in Walker's essay "Am I Blue?" she begins by speculating about just how much identity "dumb animals" actually possess. The opportunity for close study comes to her when a horse is released into a pasture which she can see from her study. Over a period of time, Walker comes to recognize the various moods of the horse, whom she names Blue, and to understand that, in a sense, Blue possesses as much identity as she is willing to grant him. Walker connects this realization to a consideration of the plight of various minorities which have, at one time or place, been considered to have identities somehow less complex or "human" than that of the majority, and how usually this "dumbing down" of the minorities' identity has been a result of denying the minority the power of self-expression. The mechanics of Walker's prose are the best example of the power of literacy: as Walker follows this line of reasoning through a chain of beautiful metaphors and compelling analogies, the students gain a lasting lesson in the ability of writing to both clarify a problem and provide the means for its exploration and solution. And of course the essay also generates rich discussions about how important a voice, an articulate voice is to the formation and expression of one's identity.
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These essays teach more than just how race relationships get imbedded in language, can limit language, and can finally be transcended with language; they also teach that the ability to write is an extraordinarily powerful tool in the struggle all people face to understand themselves, and to express that understanding to others. Each of these marvelous essays makes clear that composing oneself in life is often aided or even preceded by the ability to compose oneself on paper; that the ability to write "This is who I am" gives one the power and technology to look beyond present circumstances and say, "This is who I wish to become."
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