Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Literature and Self-Liberation

Claudia Anderson has written an excellent essay for the June 23 Weekly Standard comparing the lives of two outspoken and courageous advocates for freedom: Frederick Douglass and Ayaan Hirsi Ali:

Born a little over 150 years apart, Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (born 1969) both had the experience, on the threshold of adulthood--he was 20, she 22--of fleeing the culture they'd grown up in and entering another. For both, it was a run toward freedom. In each case, a short train ride and a name change to foil pursuers were the fateful turning points in a remarkable life they would recount in bestselling memoirs.

Both, growing up, were subjected to various forms of violence and family disruption, and frequently witnessed the degrading treatment of others. Both found in books intimations of a different way of life. Both claimed their inner freedom in a climactic act of self-assertion. For Douglass, this came several years before his escape, when, in a two-hour struggle, he fought off an attempt by the "Negro breaker" Edward Covey to tie him up and flog him. For Hirsi Ali, it came months after her flight, when she quietly faced down a council of ten Somali tribal elders who had found her in Holland and had come to return her to the fold.

Both were eventually thrust onto a wider stage when they spoke up extemporaneously in a public meeting. Gifted with intelligence and unusually handsome physique, each would become a sought-after speaker--he a leading abolitionist and one of the great orators of the 19th century, she an agitator for the rights of Muslim women in Europe and a sharp critic of Islam. Yet however prominent, both would long remain in physical danger--she in mortal danger--and would more than once cross the Atlantic in search of safety.

In particular, it was their encounters with books that would set both Douglass and Hirsi Ali on the path to self-liberation:

Books, of course, were not supposed to play a part in the life of any slave. But the young Frederick Bailey--the name he carried until his escape from slavery--learned to read. Sent from the plantation to Baltimore when he was eight to live with relatives of his owner and look after their young son, he was welcomed by his new mistress, Sophia Auld, who had never before had a slave. She treated him kindly, read him Bible stories, and taught him hymns. When he asked her to teach him to read, she did. Proudly showing off Frederick's accomplishment to her husband, she was smartly informed of the error of her ways.

In phrases that became a touchstone for Frederick, Hugh Auld explained to his wife that to teach a slave to read would "unfit him for slavery." The formal lessons ended, but the child already had the rudiments. Over the ensuing years, unobserved in his loft above the kitchen, he practiced reading and taught himself to write, studying Webster's speller and copying between the lines of his young charge's old exercise notebooks from school.

When he was 12, with 50 cents saved from polishing shoes, Frederick bought a copy of one of the most widely used school anthologies of the day, The Columbian Orator, first published in 1797. This book became his entire curriculum. He studied it, he later recalled, every chance he got. It could hardly have been better designed to prepare him for his calling.


For Ayaan Hirsi Ali, it was not one book, but rather a kind of book--Western fiction, both high and low--that stirred her aspirations beyond the horizons of a typical Somali woman. At school, she read 1984, Huckleberry Finn, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Wuthering Heights, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Cry, the Beloved Country. She read Jane Austen and Charlotte Brönte and "Russian novels with their strange patronymics and snowy vistas." And after hours, there were "the sexy books" that circulated among her school friends, by Barbara Cartland and Danielle Steel. Both the classics and the romances, as she tells in her memoir, exposed her to a world of "freedom, struggle, and adventure." In these books, individuals wrestled with moral dilemmas, women were independent actors, mutual attraction preceded union, and the man and woman who chose each other often were shown achieving shared satisfaction in love and in partnership for life.

During these teenage years, Ayaan's peers were dropping out of school one by one, to be married to men chosen by their fathers--sometimes men whom they had never met. The Somali girls, who had undergone the customary clitoral excision, described to her wedding nights that were scenes of fear and pain, as their new husbands forced open their scars. Somali women were taught that submission to their husbands, as to Allah, and unquestioning service to family and clan were their lot in life.

Please read the rest:

Parallel Lives


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