Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass: learning to read

Throughout Malcolm X’s essay, “Learning to Read”, and Frederick Douglass’, “Learning to Read and Write”, each man details the motivations that sparked such an earnest desire to become literate. Both further discuss the methods they utilized and contextual basis to allow the reader further insight into each situation. These two famously articulate men appear to share one very common motivation. The incredible drive to learn appears intertwined and inseparable from the drive to define and dismantle the racial injustices of their times. This is evidenced by both men’s gravitation towards Black literature and their willingness to become part of a movement pertaining to the struggle for civil rights. This, of course, led to their historical role in those movements. Each man’s transformation suggests the continued importance of choosing subject matter that relates to the individual when promoting the learning process.
During Malcolm X’s imprisonment, he was introduced to a Black empowerment sect of Islam known as the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam, led by Elijah Muhammad, aimed to separate the oppressed black man in order to produce a race-wide discovery of self-reliance and self-respect. It is through correspondence, especially through those letters to Elijah Muhammad, that he first experiences embarrassment regarding his literacy. A previous attempt to read due to envy of a fellow inmate with superior oratory skills had not succeeded. Because black empowerment appealed directly to Malcolm X, he found a reason to focus and did so on the root of his difficulty, vocabulary comprehension.
Despite widely varied subject matter, one common theme among them is a relation back to the Black Man’s struggles. Malcolm X’s findings in genetics related to empowerment of the Black Man as being the ancestors of the white man. “If you started with a black man, a white man could be produced; but starting with a white man, you never could produce a black man—because the white gene is recessive. And since no one disputes that there was but one Original Man, the conclusion is clear” (285). Furthermore, this interest in genetics was enacted by Elijah Muhammad’s teachings, proving a continued interaction between the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X’s motivation for learning.
Frederick Douglass found his first interest in reading at age 12 and like Malcolm, the choice of subject matter once again directly relates to the personal struggle of his race. Douglass sympathized with a dialogue in The Columbian Orator resulting in the release of the slave. Like Malcolm X, Douglass continued to gravitate towards such subject matter while contemplating his literal and social imprisonment. In “Learning to Read and Write”, Douglass recounts the excruciating metamorphosis he underwent while becoming aware of his position in painstaking detail: “The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery.” (147) Malcolm X too expresses that the more he learned, the more horrified he was, and the more it increased his desire to learn. “Ten guards and the warden couldn’t have torn me out of those books” (Malcolm X ed. Haley, 287). Consumption of material pertaining to the Black struggle increased as each man recounts their experience of comprehending the immense atrocities perpetrated against their people.
Upon sighting the word “abolition”, Douglass immediately decided the word held some special promise. Indeed, silent interest in this single word was harbored for some time without knowing its meaning. Later, his discovery of the abolitionist movement leads to freedom, gives him a place to belong, and a cause to fight for. Through this cause, Douglass has made a lasting impression on history and garnered respect from blacks and whites alike.
The Nation of Islam too would have made less of an impact had it not been for the leadership of Malcolm X. Attesting to Malcolm X’s exceptional leadership skills is the great deal of independent support he stood to gain even after relationships with the Nation of Islam disintegrated. This potential was of course snubbed out by his murder in Harlem. Like Douglass, one could argue that Malcolm X’s discovery of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam truly set him free and gave him a place to belong. The opposing argument to this would point out that the Nation of Islam were implicated by Malcolm X before his death as being a threat to his life.
In both Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X, we see a direct relationship between the intrinsic desire to attain information and its relation to each of their personal sufferings. Through this attainment of information, each was transformed into highly regarded men with the ability to command respect. When questioned as to Malcolm X’s alma mater later in his life, he responds with, “Books.” This very short sentiment goes a long way in explaining the vehicle each man used to make life better but it does not explain how to capture the intrinsic interest in reading. In many poorly funded, low scoring, predominantly black American schools, perhaps extensive curriculum focusing specifically on the history of their own race would go great lengths in sparking the desire to learn rather than the very abbreviated Black History month in place.

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