The Search for Life in Outer Space

The Atlantic in Paris: Dispatch #8

Hieronymus Bosch, The Adoration of the Magi. (Museo Del Prado.)

Continuing our conversation around learning and understanding, one of my favorite passages on the life of the autodidact comes from the great George L. Ruffin's description of Frederick Douglass's odyssey from downtrodden American slave to premier American intellectual:

His range of reading has been wide and extensive. He has been a hard student. In every sense of the word, he is a self-made man. By dint of hard study he has educated himself, and to-day it may be said he has a well-trained intellect. He has surmounted the disadvantage of not having a university education, by application and well-directed effort.

He seems to have realized the fact, that to one who is anxious to become educated and is really in earnest, it is not positively necessary to go to college, and that information may be had outside of college walks; books may be obtained and read elsewhere. They are not chained to desks in college libraries, as they were in early times at Oxford.

Professors' lectures may be bought already printed, learned doctors may be listened to in the lyceum, and the printing-press has made it easy and cheap to get information on every subject and topic that is discussed and taught in the university. Douglass never made the mistake (a common one) of considering that his education was finished. He has continued to study, he studies now, and is a growing man, and at this present moment he is a stronger man intellectually than ever before.

There is a wonderful, if problematic, tradition in the black community of intellectual pursuit as a "macho" activity. Book learning was something that "they" did not want us to have and in seizing it we were, somehow, claiming our manhood. The tradition is problematic--or perhaps anachronistic--because manhood doesn't have the same meaning today. In fact I am not sure if it has, or ultimately will have, any meaning at all. What happens to categories born out of power after power is dislodged? No one goes around talking about "property-owners" in relation to voting rights today.

In his autobiography, Malcolm X does not claim his manhood through an act of vengeful violence, or by sexual access to white women but through the reclamation of his intellect. Douglass becomes a "man" when he physically subdues the slave-driver Covey, but his mastery of literacy is at least as influential and ultimately more enduring.

I think we can substitute "humanity" for the word "manhood" today and see that this idea of reaching a level of consciousness makes us feel more human, more in touch with the world swirling around us. In becoming intellectually aware, Frederick Douglass began to ask questions and confront problems that never had occurred to him before. It was in following the intellectual questions that slavery and abolition raised about humanity that Douglass found himself to be a "woman's rights man." His last public act, indeed his last thoughts evidently, were not on the boundaries of color, but of gender.

I feel that expansion constantly here--new questions constantly popping up around me. The other day we sat in a very nice restaurant near the Canal St. Martin. I took courage and drank a lot of red wine. Then I ordered a blood sausage--in direct violation of every law of the black nationalist kosher code. It was incredible. It was not so much a sausage as a savory chocolate pudding. There was a party beside us. Within that party there was a woman with blond hair wearing a pink dress. She stared at us for fully half of our meal. When we left I saw the people around us staring. Perhaps it was because I'd said "Bienvenue" when we walked in the door. Or perhaps it was because we were black. I couldn't know. I didn't care.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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