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Writing Program at New College

A Case Study of Critical Reading: Frederick Douglass' Autobiography

As an example to further ground the discussions of critical reading and all the other reading strategies we will cover in this section, we offer a famous chapter from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, published in 1845, some years after escaping from slavery. To begin with, read Douglass’s first two paragraphs.

I lived in Master Hugh's family about seven years. During this time, I succeeded in learning to read and write. In accomplishing this, I was compelled to resort to various stratagems. I had no regular teacher. My mistress, who had kindly commenced to instruct me, had, in compliance with the advice and direction of her husband, not only ceased to instruct, but had set her face against my being instructed by any one else. It is due, however, to my mistress to say of her, that she did not adopt this course of treatment immediately. She at first lacked the depravity indispensable to shutting me up in mental darkness. It was at least necessary for her to have some training in the exercise of irresponsible power, to make her equal to the task of treating me as though I were a brute.

My mistress was, as I have said, a kind and tender-hearted woman; and in the simplicity of her soul she commenced, when I first went to live with her, to treat me as she supposed one human being ought to treat another. In entering upon the duties of a slaveholder, she did not seem to perceive that I sustained to her the relation of a mere chattel, and that for her to treat me as a human being was not only wrong, but dangerously so. Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness. The first step in her downward course was in her ceasing to instruct me. She now commenced to practice her husband's precepts. She finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself. She was not satisfied with simply doing as well as he had commanded; she seemed anxious to do better. Nothing seemed to make her more angry than to see me with a newspaper. She seemed to think that here lay the danger. I have had her rush at me with a face made all up of fury, and snatch from me a newspaper, in a manner that fully revealed her apprehension. She was an apt woman; and a little experience soon demonstrated, to her satisfaction, that education and slavery were incompatible with each other.

Read more of Douglass’s account in Chapter VII of an ebook version of Douglass's 1845 Narrative at The Gutenberg Project

Practicing the Questions

Let’s ask some of our critical reading questions as a way of opening up pathways of thought and future writing. We need go no farther than Douglass’ first paragraph (in case you haven’t yet read the full selection).

As a first step, we recommend locating main claims.

When you find a statement you believe to be an important claim in what you’re reading, stop to make a note, either in the margin or on a separate page.. A claim is an assertion of truth or fact, a statement writers put forward with the intention that their readers accept them. There may be one main claim in what you are reading, or may be several or many. Claims may be explicitly announced in the manner of a thesis. Claims may also be implied or suggested. If what you’re reading is firmly grounded in research, the writer or writers might present their main ideas as conclusions, that is, the findings to which research has led them. 

Many statements can be thought of as claims, but what we’re interested in for the most part are claims that take a position, that assert something that is not self-evident but that needs support or defense.

Once you have marked all or most of the explicit and implied claims in what you are reading, you will have a solid map of the argument or logic of the piece. It might be helpful to look at all the claims, and think about how they work together.

Traditionally, claims are supported through the use of evidence and sound reasoning. Depending on the focus of the text, the discipline of which it is a product, its intended audience, and perhaps other factors, evidence and reason will be quite different. What a biologist takes to be strong evidence and sound reasoning will not be the same as the evidence and reasoning valued by a linguist, for example, or a literary scholar. Although none of us can evaluate evidence across all disciplines and in all contexts, do your best to answer the question, if there is evidence provided, is the evidence convincing? Does it really support the claims?

In the passage from Douglass that we are discussing, as in many texts, the claims are implied or at least not stated directly. For example, we don’t have to dig deeply to see that Douglass is calling the act of denying a person literacy “depraved.” How does Douglass support this claim? Do you agree or disagree? Why? If you go on to read the rest of this chapter from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, you will find that Douglass makes many claims about the morality of slavery and slaveholding. To be sure, a claim that is both strongly implied and boldly stated throughout the text is that the slave system is immoral and should be ended immediately.

Now, let’s pose questions about potentially unfamiliar words, ideas, and references. What is the definition of “depravity”? We can tell that Douglass’s is asserting something negative about the person in question, but what? What is the definition of “strategem”? It sounds like strategy, and that meaning seems to work given what the paragraph is about, but might there be important differences about which we as readers should be aware? When we confront unfamiliar words, we can first try to guess the meaning based on the context in which it’s used. If you can’t get some sense of the meaning based on context, it’s time to go to a good dictionary, like the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, which is part of the online Encyclopedia Britannica.

Given that we are only reading a selection of Douglass’s Narrative, there are many questions about context we should ask. Let’s just stick with the first paragraph. Was it uncommon for slaves to be able to read and write? If so, why? It sounds as if these slave owners, “master” and “mistress,” made a serious effort to thwart Douglass’s efforts to gain literacy. Why? What was the thinking of slave holders regarding slave literacy?

Other contexts important for understanding the text critically can be examined by thinking about the references it makes.. Pay attention when writers reference events, concepts or other writer’s work that are central to their own writing. Douglass makes many references throughout his Narrative, to abolitionists, events in American and world history, to the bible

Reading for absences might sound odd at first. Another way to think about this is to say that we can read for what is assumed. For example, it might strike you as interesting that Douglass wishes to be fair to his former master. He says that she had to learn the “depravity” necessary to attempt keeping him illiterate. Does Douglass believe more generally that slaveholders are not fundamentally evil people, that they learn cruelty and gain the will to dominate through some learning process? Also, we should recognize that Douglass's account of his experience resonates strongly with ideas about universal freedom and the doctrine of “natural rights” that were central to the abolitionist movement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. According to the doctrine of natural rights, all people deserve freedom and the right of self-determination. This broader context, hinted at throughout, is powerfully present despite the lack of explicit references.

Never underestimate the importance of responding to what you read “from the gut.” This might not produce our best thinking all the time, but it is important to know where we stand, how what we read connects with our beliefs, values, and the emotions they inspire. Critical reading might sound like a wholly analytical process, driven by reason, scientific in its exactness, but it need not be. Take the time to record your gut reactions as way to begin formulating a strong response, or if nothing else, in order to take the pulse, so to speak, of your attitude in relationship to what you are reading. Reading Douglass’s chapter, it is nearly impossible not to be impressed by his incredible resourcefulness and determination. We might also have a strong emotional reaction to the dehumanizing cruelty of slavery. It’s worth noting these things to record the aspects of the text that resonate for us.

We haven’t said nearly all there is to say about the deep questioning and knowledge-making power of critical reading. During the rest of this course and well beyond, we hope you will learn the many remaining lessons.

Go to this Exercise to begin practicing reading as questioning.

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