Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X: From Illiteracy to Illumination Most people learn to read and write with the help of a teacher and workbooks in a classroom. Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X had none of these advantages. Despite great obstacles both Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X became literate. Although their paths to literacy have some notable differences, the similarities are most striking. They both learned to read and write largely on their own, and in the process, became independent thinkers with a profound influence on others.
Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X were remarkably resourceful and self-reliant during their journey towards literacy. They were diligent in that they used whatever time they had to learn more. Slaveholders deliberately withheld education from slaves as a means of suppression, “for it is an almost unpardonable offence to teach slaves to read…”(Douglass 146). His mistress was unaware of this practice, teaching him the alphabet before her husband could stop the lessons. After this he then would bribe or trick local white boys to teach him more or used shipyard timber and stolen copy-books. Malcolm X was also resourceful. He entered jail with an eighth grade education, but after copying the entire dictionary by hand, and studying it “like a miniature encyclopedia” (X 283), he was able to “…pick up a book…and now begin to understand what the book was saying” (X 283). These remarkably self-motivated men learned to read and write almost entirely independently.
Despite these similarities, the self education of Malcolm X and Douglass has notable differences. As a slave, Douglass was putting himself in danger by learning to read and write. Nothing made his mistress more angry than “to see me with a newspaper” (Douglass 145). He had to be secretive, for fear of physical punishment. In contrast, Malcolm X learned to read in a much safer environment. After spending his adolescence and adulthood on the streets, his punishment for criminal activity—prison— provided a safe haven where he had the opportunity to educate himself: the prison had “thousands of old books” (X 283). He saw jail as the only place that he could “have attacked my ignorance by being able to study intensely” (X 290).
Douglass did not have this advantage, for as a slave he was chained mentally as well and physically, and had to learn to read and write by subterfuge, and with minimal resources. What Douglas and Malcolm X read during their journey to literacy had a profound impact on both men. Douglass, born a Southern slave, had always hated his enslavers. But in learning to read, he become much more articulate and insightful in that hate. One book in particular, “The Columbian Orator”, served as a major influence on Douglass. He felt that “[t]he reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts , and the meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery” (Douglass 146). This enlightenment made him restless and bitter. This cycle continued, “[t]he more I read, the more I was led to detest and abhor my enslavers” (Douglass 147).
Eventually, Douglas learned about abolition, and “resolved to run away” to the North. Malcolm X encountered the works of black writers like W. E. B. Du Bois, and more importantly Elijah Muhammad a black, muslim leader. These teachings radicalized X; he grew to believe that “the collective white man had acted like a devil in virtually every contact with the world’s collective non-white man” (287). Both men acknowledged this inspiration. Clearly, what these men read during their journey to literacy shaped their thinking about slavery and injustice. As outlined above, these men learned to read and write independent of classrooms. During this process they also both became independent thinkers who had a major impact on advancing the cause of justice for African Americans.