“Chapter XI,” the final chapter of Douglass’s Narrative but for a brief appendix, is where the author describes how he “planned and finally succeeded in making” his escape from slavery (94). How does Douglass escape, and what role does literacy play in his plan? Does he, in effect, write his way to freedom? Or is writing but a small part? One arrives to the chapter excited to read further. But Douglass tells us immediately that he’ll have to withhold some of the facts of the escape. Too much of the particular, and others might come to harm. Because of slavery’s persistence as a system, he must deprive himself of the pleasure to speak freely the facts of the matter; otherwise, he would run the hazard of closing doors of use to those still enslaved. Means of flight must be kept secret. At most, no more than hinted at. Of the slaveholder, from whom knowledge of this sort must be kept, Douglass says, “Let him be left to feel his way in the dark; let darkness commensurate with his crime hover over him” (95).
Every book is a monument of sorts. Which ones do we want on our shelves? Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave appears on mine — or in my hands, rather. Acquisition of language — or more accurately, the acquisition not just of orality but also of literacy, learning to read and write: this is a major event in Douglass’s Narrative, as it is in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein. For the creature in Shelley’s book, this event is a tragic one. It’s that for Douglass, too, in that it brings him great sorrow. “It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things,” he writes, “with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty — to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man.” But for Douglass, this understanding brings with it a thing to be prized. “From that moment,” he tells us, “I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (44).