Black and white illustration of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass
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What does Frederick say was his "pathway to freedom"?

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Fredrick Douglass maintains that his path to freedom was literacy. For Douglass, literacy was a pathway to being educated and, most importantly, self-aware. Douglass is initially taught how to read by the kindly wife of his slave master. The slave master, upon discovering the lessons, implies that a slave who...

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Fredrick Douglass maintains that his path to freedom was literacy. For Douglass, literacy was a pathway to being educated and, most importantly, self-aware. Douglass is initially taught how to read by the kindly wife of his slave master. The slave master, upon discovering the lessons, implies that a slave who could read would be no slave at all. It is at this point that Douglas becomes obsessed with being as literate as possible.

Douglass begins to understand the oppression all around him the more he is able to read. He becomes familiar with laws that do not allow for slaves to be educated. He becomes familiar with the abolition movement and desires nothing more than to contribute to it. Indeed, it can be inferred that without literacy, Douglass may have never had the motivation and ability to free himself.

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As the first person to answer this question noted, Douglass discovers that his pathway to freedom is learning how to read. After his initially kind slave mistress Sophia Auld begins to teach him how to read, Douglass's slave master becomes irate and tells his wife to cease her lessons immediately. He says that learning to read would forever make Douglass unfit to be a slave. It is at this moment that Douglass understands that literacy is the path to freedom for several reasons. First, learning to read will prove he is bright and the equal of whites, and reading will also enable him to learn how to diffuse and contradict the arguments that whites use to keep him enslaved. Literacy also has a practical purpose, as learning how to read will give Douglass the skills he needs to survive economically once he escapes north. Therefore, Douglass begins to use tricks to make the white boys he meets in Baltimore teach him how to read. 

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In Chapter 6, Frederick comes to understand that literacy is the pathway from slavery to freedom.  It was against the law to teach a slave to read, and, as Mr. Auld explains to his wife, "If you teach (a slave) how to read, there would be no keeping him.  It would forever unfit him to be a slave...he would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master".  Frederick from this point begins to understand that it is by keeping the black man in ignorance that the white man derives his power over him.

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