Revisiting Racialized Voice: African American Ethos in Language and Literature

By David G. Holmes | Go to book overview

1
The Color of Literacy: Race, Self, and the Public Ethos

RALPH WALDO EMERSON EMPLOYED A R O M A N T I C , or what I have called an “inner public, ” voice. Frederick Douglass was restricted by his efforts to appropriate a transracial public voice, despite his attempts to become an Emersonian “representative man.” By the end of this chapter, I will have introduced how gender further complicated this restriction for women of color, like Frances E. W. Harper. Selected works of Douglass and Harper provide two sites for examining the nexuses among race, gender, and public voice. There are many other men and women of color one could consider in exploring the tensions between codified notions of race and literacy. However, Douglass and Harper will be more than adequate to illustrate my thesis.

To begin with, the titles of Frederick Douglass's three autobiographical narratives signify the evolution, or what Eric Sundquist calls “revisions, ” of his voice: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave; My Bondage and My Freedom; and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. These titles indicate a progression from the slave narrative proper to American autobiography (Sundquist, To Wake 83—86). Douglass's prominence also illustrates how African American women were marginalized in the formation of African American letters, a practice that continued through the Black Arts movement.

Douglass's inability to transcend race raises several questions for this

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