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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Illiteracy was an instrumental tool used to deprive slaves in an attempt to keep them ignorant and manageable during the 1800’s. If slaves were to learn how to read, they could in turn be educated. The oppressing class during this time period realized that if slaves were able to become educated they could no longer be useful, for it would be increasingly difficult to exploit their services. The ability to read was the white man’s power over slaves. Douglass, realizing the situation of his enslavement, took advantage of his privileges and began to secretly learn how to read and write. As he become more proficient in English, Douglass began to gain a following of slaves who were willing to learn. He used his knowledge to covertly conduct a school where he would teach other slaves the alphabet and numbers. The experience of teaching others brought tremendous joy to Douglass who felt he was providing a better opportunity to his fellow slaves.

Frederick Douglass is an exemplary example of why literacy was such a guarded commodity during the 1800’s. When Douglass went to live with the Auld family, the mistress Mrs. Auld had never before owned a slave. Her behavior towards Douglass was different—kinder, and she even began to teach him the alphabet. When her husband, Mr. Auld, found out of her actions she was scolded and told that a slave should never be taught how to read. From that day on, Mrs. Auld never again taught Douglass any letters. Her attitude completely changed. Not only was the issue of slaves being illiterate keeping slaves ignorant, but the masters also. By Mrs. Auld’s sudden change in attitude to Douglass it became apparent that the idea of slavery was not a natural occurrence, it was taught. When Douglass saw how protective Mr. Auld was over keeping him illiterate, he became more curious and concluded that education would be vital to the emancipation of his race. He used his knowledge of the alphabet to eventually learn how to read and write.

“If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell”(47). The words of Mr. Auld seemed to foretell Douglass too perfectly. It would be too unsafe for whites to educate their slaves because a slave “should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told”(47). Still, Douglass progressed to learn how to read and write without a formal teache...

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...ather and eat until they were full while the slaves who served them were starving.

Frederick Douglass increased awareness about the evils of slavery by educating his peers and others who would listen about the injustice and cruelty of slaveholding and slaveholders. He was able to overcome the ignorance of educating slaves, secretly teaching himself how to read by utilizing the little knowledge that was accidentally shared with him. Douglass gained a better sense of religion by reading the Bible himself and he learned that his Christianity practiced in the south was often hypocritical. He observed the southern church act tolerable towards slavery. If the church accepted tithe money that was earned through slavery than surely they failed to protest it. Slaveholders would suddenly turn into devote Christians. They used their religion as a crutch for their evil deeds, which only intensified the ignorance of the slaveholders. The experiences described by Frederick Douglass in his narrative are so grueling and vivid that one cannot help but to rationalize the unmoral values that slavery and slaveholding posses, and that the abolishment of slavery would benefit society in many ways.
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