UW News

October 10, 2023

“Ways of Knowing” Episode 3: Close Reading Redux

The autobiography of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845, was a standard bearer of the abolitionist movement. Having escaped slavery as a young man, Douglass became a famous activist, orator, statesman and businessman.

Click to see the full transcript of the episode

Ways of Knowing

Season 1: the Humanities

Episode 3: Close Reading Redux



[person reading]


Chapter 1 of “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” written by himself. I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about 12 miles from Easton, in Talbot County, Maryland.


Sam Harnett: Frederick Douglass’ 1845 autobiography is one of the most famous narratives written by a formerly enslaved person. The intimate details about growing up in slavery helped make the book a fundamental text in the abolitionist movement.


[person continues reading]


My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant, before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor. 


For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result. 


SH: Contemporary scholars from across the humanities and social sciences have pored over this text — historians, literary theorists, sociologists. They’ve analyzed everything from the structure of the narrative to the style of the prose. But there’s an important detail in the work that is often overlooked, and it happens right in the first paragraph.


Habiba Ibrahim: And so Douglass, right after mentioning where he was born, goes into this explanation as to why he doesn’t know his own age.


SH: Habiba Ibrahim, professor of English at the University of Washington.


[person reading]


 I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age… 


[Habiba Ibrahim reads the passage]


…I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it.


By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs. And it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep slaves thus ignorant.



SH: Douglass is comparing a human who doesn’t know their own age to a work animal, a horse.


HI: Having the entitlement of knowing one’s relationship to time is, you know, what distinguishes a human being from chattel. Age is part of what makes us human. Having some relationship to time, developmental time, is a constitutive aspect of humanity.


SH: For the entire first paragraph of his story, Douglass writes about how he was severed from his age.


[person reading]


I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. They seldom come near to it than planting time, harvest time, cherry time, or fall time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during my childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege. I was not allowed to make any inquiries of my master concerning it. He deemed all such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent and evidence of a restless spirit. The nearest estimate that I can give makes me now between 27 and 28 years of age. I come to this hearing from my master say some time during 1835 I was about 17 years old…


HI: The fact that the master withholds time from the enslaved. That the master counts time. That the master knows how old the enslaved are but withholds this information from the enslaved. In a sense it is an accounting of what possession looks like. The slavemaster can possess the time of the enslaved, right? They can possess knowledge of the ages of the enslaved. The enslaved are treated as if they don’t have human time.


SH: Denying enslaved people knowledge of their relationship to time was part of the process of trying to turn them from people into property.


HI: We can think about the dispossession of age when it comes to Blackness by virtue of thinking of this commercial process of enslavement. There was a process that occurred in which a logic had to be put in place for this trade to make sense, right? And so it’s through that logic that Blackness itself was constituted.




SH: The commercial process of slavery shaped everything from social categories like race and gender to attributes like intelligence, beauty, strength and age. Age might seem unarguable. Your age is the number of years since you were born. But it’s not that simple. Age is not a fixed category. It is, in part, a social construct, similar to gender or race. Just because someone has been alive for 17 years doesn’t mean they will be thought of or treated like a 17-year-old.


This very example is what started Habiba’s inquiry into the relationship between Blackness and age.


HI: It was the moment after Trayvon Martin’s murder.


SH: February 26th, 2012. Trayvon Martin was seventeen years old when he was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a resident of a gated community in Sanford, Florida. At the time of the shooting, Martin was unarmed and walking back to his relative’s home from a nearby convenience store.


HI: How is it that a 17-year-old can be murdered in the way he was? Why wasn’t his innocence discerned, why wasn’t he seen as someone who was young? How was it that Blackness seems to be in some ways related to the concept of age in non-normative ways? What does it mean when Black people seem to be unaged, to not have an age, to age differently?


SH: These questions led Habiba back to Frederick Douglass and the effects of the commercial process of slavery. She traced the relationship of Blackness and age from those historical roots up through contemporary culture, where it affects not just the young but the old. At the same time Black children are denied the protections and privileges of childhood, Habiba has documented how elder Black people are often portrayed as inhumanly aged, symbols of history that stretch back many generations. They get used to evoke a distant past, one that is far removed from our present reality.

[Former President Barack Obama speaks]


This election had many firsts, many stories that will be told for generations. But one that is on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. 


SH: 2008, an excerpt from Barack Obama’s victory speech.


[Obama continues speaking]


She is a lot like the millions of others that stood in line to make their voices heard this election, except for one thing, Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old. She was born just a generation past slavery, a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky, when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons, because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.


And tonight I think about all she has seen through her century in America. The heartache and the hope. The struggle and the progress…The times we were told we can’t, and the people who pressed on with that American freedom, yes we can.


SH: For Habiba, one of the most illuminating sources on the contemporary relationship between Blackness and age is a book by Octavia Butler. It’s called “Fledgling.” “Fledgling” is the story of a seemingly young girl who discovers that she is actually a genetically modified, 53-year-old vampire. The character is simultaneously young and middle-aged, an innocent child and an inhuman vampire; she’s at the start of her life, but she’s also frozen in time… ageless.



SH: Habiba is close reading literature, historical documents and contemporary media in order to interpret the world outside of the text, particularly the relationship between Blackness and age. Her work is in the tradition of Black Studies, an interdisciplinary field focused on the history, culture, and politics of people of African descent — topics that were long excluded from higher education. Black Studies is one of the many fields in the humanities where literature and other culture productions are analyzed through a focused theoretical framework. There’s postcolonial studies, critical theory, environmental humanities, queer theory, disability studies…Each one uses the analysis of cultural productions to better understand the world outside of the text. We’re going to introduce you to some of these theoretical frameworks later on in the series.



SH: Here are five sources that will help you learn more about close Reading as it relates to Blackness and age.


Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights,Robin Bernstein


This book looks at how the concept of “childhood innocence” has played out in American history. If most white children have it, and most Black children are denied it, what does that tell us about the racial formation of the United States?


“Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Bookby Hortense Spillers


Age is just one of the many social constructs shaped by slavery. This essay helps make sense of how it impacted gender.


The Slave’s Narrative,” edited by Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates


If you are interested in knowing more about texts like Fredrick Douglass’s autobiography, read this collection of critical essays and reviews on the autobiographies of ex-slaves.


The Black Atlantic,” Paul Gilroy


Gilroy offers a modernist view that there aren’t separate African, Caribbean, American or British Black cultures, but one Black Atlantic culture that transcends nationality and ethnicity.


And of course, there’s Habiba’s book, “Black Age: Oceanic Lifespans and the Time of Black Life



Chris Hoff: Ways of Knowing is a production of The World According to Sound. This season is about the different interpretative and analytical methods in the humanities. It was made in collaboration with the University of Washington and its College of Arts & Sciences. All the interviews with UW faculty were conducted on campus in Seattle. Music provided by Ketsa, John Bartmann and our friends, Matmos.


SH: The World According to Sound is made by Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett.



Habiba Ibrahim, professor of English

Habiba Ibrahim, professor of English

But it is another aspect of his story that is just as intriguing to Habiba Ibrahim, professor of English at the University of Washington: Douglass never knew, nor is there an official record of, his exact age. Then, with the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida more than a decade ago, Ibrahim began studying age as it relates to race. While slave owners withheld information such as age, viewing people as property, there remains a larger disconnect, Ibrahim argues, between Blackness and age. She asks: “What does it mean when Black people seem to be un-aged?”

A portrait of Frederick Douglass

A portrait of Frederick DouglassWikipedia

This is the third of eight episodes of “Ways of Knowing,” a podcast highlighting how studies of the humanities can reflect everyday life. Through a partnership between The World According to Sound and the University of Washington, each episode features a faculty member from the UW College of Arts & Sciences, the work that inspires them, and suggested resources for learning more about the topic.

Next | Episode 4: Environmental Studies