Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Questions and Answers
by Frederick Douglass

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How did Douglass learn to read?

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Douglass learns to read when he is sold as a young man to the Auld family in Baltimore. He is taught by Sophia Auld, his master's wife. Douglass is struck by her kindness, but even more so by her husband's angry reaction when he discovers what she is doing. Mr. Auld orders his wife to stop teaching Douglass immediately, claiming that educating a slave made them "unmanageable" and "forever...unfit to be a slave." Douglass regards his master's tirade as a crucial turning point in his life, one where he understood, for the first time, the "white man's power to enslave the black man." The "pathway from slavery to freedom," he further concluded, was through education:

It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired...That which to him was a great evil, ...was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. 

Douglass thus set out to educate himself, with an eye toward gaining freedom. If keeping slaves ignorant was the key to keeping them docile, then he would rebel by learning to read, even though (or, as he observes, because) his master forbade it. 

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