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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 teacher. The reason that this is such a divine moment in his life is because it portrays equality between Frederick, the literate slave, and his literate masters.

While Douglass lived with Mr. Freeland he gained a very close knit of friends with the slaves on the farm. They were a community which acted as one, each member responsible for the other. Before his escape, Douglass was able to ignite the will to learn into those on the farm and the farms surrounding. He devoted his Sundays and three evenings a week to educating his community and "several of those who came to Sabbath school learned how to read; and that one, at least, is now free"(88). He gave those who were trapped the same utensils that were given to him when he was younger. Douglass provided a way for other slaves to learn about religion, shedding light on their mental darkness and even "had at one time over forty scholars"(88). As his ideology of education became more accepted throughout the farm, Douglass was able to gather an escape team. Amidst all the planning, Douglass wrote a protection for each of the men stating they were allowed to travel to Baltimore for the holiday. This is the advantage Douglass, a literate slave, has over other slaves and also other whites. No other slave would be able to legibly write a letter of protection and no other white person would expect a slave to know how to write. By Douglass knowing how to write, it makes the authenticity of the protections seem more probable. Douglass,



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