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Literacy empowers freedom– Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” — Frederick Douglass

book introduction:

Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass is a memoir on abolition. In the book, Douglass narrates his experiences being a slave and his ambitions to become a free man. The book is considered one of the most important work that fueled the abolitionist movement.

book recommendation:

Douglass uses powerful language and various persuasive elements in the book to showcase the brutality, cruelty and unrighteousness of the institution of slavery. He also encourages slaves to gain literacy and resist oppression. Even though slavery was abolished after the publication of the book, the narratives provide great insights into the life of a slave and the dehumanization they he went through.

rating: 4.9/5

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Literacy Empowers Freedom

       Language communicates information; information spreads ideas; ideas become wisdom; wisdom leads to freedom. In the antebellum south, both slaves and slave owners valued literacy: as slaves gained more knowledge, enslavers feared that literacy would threaten slavery, and slaves sought languages as a tool to fight for liberty.

       In Chapter VI of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, the author reveals the power of language and literacy by narrating the fear enslavers had of slaves with literacy. While Mrs. Auld, the “tender-hearted” (Douglass 28) mistress, tried to teach Douglass to read, Mr. Auld intruded by claiming the act to be “unlawful, as well as unsafe” (Douglass 27). Mr. Auld, the slave owner, believed that ignorance of the slaves was important in maintaining the practice of slavery, and literacy of the slaves could potentially terminate enslavement. He claimed that “[literacy] would make [the slave] discontented and unhappy” because slaves would understand the immorality and unrighteousness of slavery from reading. The ideas are able to educate slaves, thus threatening the authority of the slave owners. Mr. Auld commented that if a slave is taught how to read, he would “at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master” (Douglass 27). The enslavers believed that in order to continue the act of slavery, it was important to prevent the slaves from being literate, understanding the absurdity of their situation, and taking actions to revolt. Driven by the fear of the “evil consequences of giving [the slaves] instruction”, slave holers like Mr. Auld forbade the slaves to read or write. The previously kind mistress expressed the same apprehension and held the conviction that “education and slavery were incompatible with each other” (Douglass 29). The fear of the slaves being able to read and write discloses the underlying power literacy has and its ability to undermine the power of the slave owners.

       Not only did the enslavers understood the strength of literacy, but also did the slaves themselves. Douglass, for example, learned that “white man’s power to enslave the black man” (Douglass 27) came from the ignorance and illiteracy of the black man. Inspired by the potential of literacy, Douglass “understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (Douglass 27): the communication of information through reading and writing. Douglass had faith in gaining literacy, and he was determined to learn how to read and use it as a tool to fight against the oppressors. Even though the mistress, after realizing the “danger” of her actions, stopped teaching Douglass, the eager youngster managed to learn on his own as “no precaution could prevent [him] from taking the ell” (Douglass 29). In order to obtain literacy, Douglass also traded with the white boys on the street to get the “more valuable bread of knowledge” (Douglass 29). The more he read, the more he learned about the nature of slavery: it was a “powerful vindication of human rights” (Douglass 30). Douglass came to “abhor and detest [his] enslavers” (Douglass 30) as he gained the “power of truth” (Douglass 30). Even though he was not yet physically emancipated, ” the silver trump of freedom” (Douglass 30) roused his soul, and he believed that “freedom now appeared” (Douglass 30). It was literacy that gave him knowledge, and it was knowledge that gave him insights into the practice of slavery: he was free from being ignorant of the brutality of enslavement.

       Both slave owners and slaves view literacy as a power that can challenge the institution of slavery, and they react differently knowing the strength of language.

date: 10/2/19

information: Frederick Douglass, “narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass”.


Published by Sunny

I am a high school rising sophomore and I love to read and write.

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