BY THE MID-NINETEENTH C E N T U RY , LITERACY WAS becoming codified in terms of two highly charged concepts: “voice” and “race.” This evolution can be traced in part by discussing the dilemma that Frederick Douglass faces as he strives to mediate between the Romantic, or transcendental, voice Emerson posits and the public voice Caleb Bingham explicates in The Columbian Orator. Like other writers during the American Renaissance, Douglass oscillates between personal expression and public communication as the ultimate purpose for writing.
During the 1850s, Douglass desires to be numbered with the “'I-narrators' of the American Renaissance” (Andrews, “My” 133). Yet Douglass's racial identity hinders his efforts. Douglass provides a minor case study of how Romantic voice involves an enigma for people of color. Hence I will not be critiquing Romantic voice directly but rather as it is applied—through Douglass—to the practices and politics of literacy for African Americans.
Nor am I contending that “voice” suggests exclusively thoughts of Romanticism. On the contrary, it is a highly evocative term. A glance at The Oxford English Dictionary reveals a wide range of meanings. Voice covers an etymological terrain from the literal “phonology” to the metaphorical “conscience”; from a specific definition, such as “singing, ” to a more overarching one, such as “sounds naturally made by a single per