In case you didn’t recognize it, that’s a picture of an aardvark off to the left. Can’t say that I know or have ever thought much about aardvarks in my life, though the oddity of their physical appearance—halfway between a pig and an anteater, it seems to me—makes them worthy of at least some note.
But “aardvark” is important here for an entirely different reason: As the first actual word in the English dictionary, it stood as a kind of gateway drug from which civil rights icon Malcolm X commenced, with an insatiable, addictive lust, one feverishly ingested word at a time, to devour the majesty of language and the reading, writing, thinking and speaking that are its constituent parts.
A slave boy laden with bread, which he uses as currency to purchase literacy lessons from poor, under-nourished, ‘free’ white boys? We see Douglass here again soaring to visionary heights of perspective, while also swinging a shrewd deal in a win-win marketplace that works to his lasting benefit.
He did so while serving an 8- to 10-year sentence that began in 1946 at Charlestown State Prison in Boston, on charges of larceny and burglary. Just short of 21 years old, he had gone to prison as a common street hustler from a broken family (father died, mother in a mental hospital) and a dim future ahead of him. But it was his great good fortune there to come under the spell of a self-taught inmate named John Bembry, whom he called “Bimbi.”
Despite his own self-acknowledged reputation as “the most articulate hustler out there,” Malcolm was awe-struck by Bimbi’s “stock of knowledge” and eloquent expression. He seemed to recognize in Bimbi something which he, too, could become.
“I had tried to emulate him,” he writes in his 1965 autobiography, co-written with Alex Haley. “But every book I picked up had few sentences which didn’t contain anywhere from one to nearly all of the words that might as well have been in Chinese.”
Thus was born one of the great self-education efforts of modern times, as Malcom requested a dictionary, writing tablets and pencils from prison authorities. He then began reading through, copying (“down to the punctuation marks”) and, to the best of his ability, memorizing every word from aardvark to whatever the last dictionary word was back then. (Now there’s a research project for Traversing bibliophiles!)
“I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary’s pages. I’d never realized so many words existed!,” he exclaimed.
Once he got ahold of them, though, he used an abundance of those words as perhaps the most potent weapon a human being can wield to insist on his own freedom and dignity. For him, it served as the precursor to claiming it for all oppressed people for whom he, like Bimbi before him, came to represent an admirable “stock of knowledge.”
More than a century before Malcolm X started poring over the dictionary in his prison cell, Frederick Douglass initiated his own literacy effort as a resourceful slave boy, ultimately going on to become a revered abolitionist, writer and orator who held up a giant, nearly all-encompassing mirror to the inhumanity and insanity of slavery.
Douglass grew up knowing nothing other than slavery, having been born into it in Maryland in 1817 or 1818 (historical accounts vary). Taken from his mother shortly after birth, he was separated at about age 6 from the grandmother who had helped raise him in slavery, then shuffled around by various owners before landing in the Baltimore home of an at-first-kindly mistress and her stern husband.
Douglass tells the story in haunting, and, we should note, highly articulate detail in “Learning to Read and Write,” a chapter in his 1845 memoir, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” written some seven years after his escape to freedom via train to New York. I warmly invite you to read the chapter from the link above at first opportunity. It is riveting and inspiring and you will be glad for it.
The condensed version: his owner/mistress is a civilized soul who treats him as a human being and delights in teaching him to read. When the master notices, he lets it be known there shall be no such humane treatment of a mere trifle of property, and the mistress soon falls into line, changing from what Douglass describes as a “pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman” into someone who…
“…now commenced to practise her husband’s precepts. She finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself…Nothing seemed to make her more angry than to see me with a newspaper…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.”
Douglass, towering well of intelligence and compassion that he was, also sees the double tragedy at work despite his own duress:
“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.”
We then see Douglass using all the wiles and native intelligence at his disposal to wrest a deep education from the oppression and cruelty of a slave-holding culture. He does so by sneak-reading anything he can get his hands on when given a moment’s time on the property, and, when sent on errands, he devises the following:
“The plan which I adopted, and the one by which I was most successful, was that of making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers. With their kindly aid, obtained at different times and in different places, I finally succeeded in learning to read. When I was sent of errands, I always took my book with me, and by going one part of my errand quickly, I found time to get a lesson before my return. I used also to carry bread with me, enough of which was always in the house, and to which I was always welcome; for I was much better off in this regard than many of the poor white children in our neighborhood. This bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give me that more valuable bread of knowledge.”
This scene is both tender and surprising in turning the usual slave narratives if not on their heads, then at least to a momentarily different angle. A slave boy laden with bread, which he uses as currency to purchase literacy lessons from poor, under-nourished “free” white boys? As in his realization that his mistress’s soul was darkened in a way his never was by the evils of slavery, we see Douglass here again soaring to visionary heights of perspective, while also swinging a shrewd deal in a win-win marketplace that works to his lasting benefit.
“Not long ago, an English writer telephoned me from London, asking questions. One was, ‘What’s your alma mater?’ I told him, ‘Books.’”
That’s 8th grade dropout Malcolm again, from the chapter “Learning to Read” in his autobiography. He regaled me with it—just him and me in a one-on-one conversation, so kind of him—with tales of reading fervently at night in his cell as lights-out time commences. Slipping under the covers, he lies still until the guard passes by on his hourly patrol. Having timed that patrol to the exact minute, Malcolm then reads for the next 58 minutes by the dim hallway light before repeating the whole exercise.
“That went on until three or four every morning,” he writes. “Three or four hours of sleep a night was enough for me. Often in the years in the streets I had slept less than that.”
Reading his autobiography early in my college years forever changed my take on the world. That’s what good serious reading does—if not “change” your take, at least cause you to examine and re-examine it long and hard.
In this nearly century and two since Malcolm and Douglass undertook their quests to become educated men, I worry not just about book banning by reactionary legislators, abhorrent as that can be. I worry more about kids reading anything at all, about young men viewing nothing but video games, sports and porn, about young women bathing in Tik Tok videos made by the “Influencer” of the week, about adults who never, ever read a book, about some black voices claiming correct and clear communication and even rational thought are just more tools of white supremacy, about the humanities in retreat on college campuses across the land, regarded as expendable and impractical, a place where dreams of relevance and impact go to die.
Would Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass be regarded as “Influencers” today? Well, “influential,” to be sure, but the major “brand” they continue to promote from their graves is freedom and the deep thought and commitment it requires to achieve and maintain. And, of course, their words—those precious, transformative words they pursued with such tenacity and held in such esteem.
Maybe more to the point is that the “Influencers“ of modern media creation don’t seem to influence much of anything that lasts. This week’s fashion trend and next week’s gotta-have-it new beverage most always go the way of all the other baubles that capitalism and celebrity culture rely on to keep their engines oiled, while always nearby, books and their role in the struggle for literacy and intelligence await—in libraries, in bookstores, in the gift of inspirational teachers, and sometimes, in the minds of street urchins willing to swap and do both of you a good turn.
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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Aardvark by Jean, Shelbyville, Kentucky https://www.flickr.com/photos/7326810@N08/
Malcolm X and Frederick Douglas portraits from the public domain
Coastal birds by Jose Murillo https://unsplash.com/@jcmu