Malcolm X and Sherman Alexie tell literacy narratives of survival. X, even in prison, says “I never had been so truly free in my life.” He had to carefully choose among all his possible stories, and his story of reading Mendel is a winner: “if you started with a black man, a white man could be produced; but starting with a white man, you never could produce a black man. . . . And since no one disputes there was but one Original Man, the conclusion is clear” (357). He write about battling the white man, he write about how his homemade education made him more sensitive to the “deafness, dumbness, and blindness” that afflicts the black race in America. X doesn’t use many stylistic flourishes, and initially I thought he told a pretty straight forward narrative, but I am interested in the ways in which mixes in insights with stories. He lists books he reads, but often drops a subtle point with each one. His first set of books, full of non-Europeans; his paragraph about Nat Turner, who wasn’t preaching pie in the sky non-violent freedom for the black man; the “piratical opportunist who used Faustian machinations to make his own Christianity” (358). What initially seemed like a pretty straightfoward account of books he read, lessons he learned, unfolds as a more complex narrative, written post prison years, weaving together his prison story, his life as preacher, and his subtle moments of revelation and insight.
Sherman Alexie starts with the innocent “I learned to read with a Superman comic book” but he tells us that what he really remembers from that literacy event is his family life, his place in the world, his Indian-ness. He continues with 4 paragraphs about learning to read, then he jumps out to a larger picture: “A smart Indian is a dangerous person.” He mixes in others stories with his own; about failing Indians, and his refusal to fail. He moves between his “I was trying to save my life” to the collective “I am trying to save our lives.” He varies sentence lengths frequently; he even writes about himself in 3rd person, and then jokes about writing himself in third person.
These essays make me think about the care needed to craft a literacy narrative. Episodes need to be carefully selected, insights are best worked in subtly, unobtrusively. Sentence lengths and structures need to be varied. Conversational lines can be dropped in. Their voices are different, but their aims are not so different. The stakes for our literacy narratives might not be this high, but that shouldn’t dissuade us for written. Quite that inner doubt, Kevin, that your story isn’t worthy (and write about yourself in the 3rd person when necessary).