Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave cover image

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass
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How did Frederick Douglass learn to read?

Frederick Douglass learned to read through the initial kindness of Mrs. Auld, who taught him the alphabet and how to form short words. Using bread as payment, Douglass employed little white boys in the city streets to secretly continue his instruction and help him become truly literate.

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When Douglas was a young boy, he was sent to live and work for his owner's relatives in Baltimore. Mrs. Sophia Auld, his new master's wife, was a newlywed who did not yet know the expected norms of slave society. She was kind to Douglass and began to teach him to read. However, when her husband found out, he quickly put a stop to the lessons, saying it would "unfit" Douglass for slavery. When Douglass overheard what Mr. Auld said, he was all the more determined to read, as he already knew he did not want to be a slave.

Douglass noted that he had far more freedom in Baltimore than on the plantation. In general, he said, slaves were better treated in a city because of the proximity of neighbors: fear of social censure from their neighbors made whites less willing to abuse their slaves. The young Douglass was often sent on errands around the city, which gave him a chance to meet and interact with whites. He took a book with him and would ask white boys to help him read. Often these were poor or working class lads who were hungry and would help him in exchange for bread, of which he had supplies from Mrs. Auld's kitchen.

Douglass, in short, was able to learn to read, first through the kindness of Mrs. Auld (who soon enough, he said, was transformed by her husband and others into a hard-hearted owner), then through his own determination and ingenuity in seeking out help, and finally through the good fortune of living in a city, where he had a chance to interact with others.

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Mrs. Auld, the master's wife, taught Frederick Douglass the alphabet shortly after he arrived in Baltimore. Initially, Mrs. Auld was a kind, tender-hearted woman, who treated Douglass with compassion and sympathy. After Mrs. Auld taught Douglass the alphabet, she began teaching him to spell small words. Unfortunately, Mrs. Auld's husband discovered that she was giving Douglass lessons and immediately put an end to his education. Douglass overheard Mr. Auld tell his wife that she would "spoil" him and he would eventually become "unmanageable."

Upon hearing Mr. Auld's comments, Douglass realized that the key to his freedom was learning how to read and write. He understood Mr. Auld's fears and was determined to become literate by any means necessary. Armed with an understanding of the alphabet, Douglass proceeded to make friends with the local white children and used them as teachers.

Each time Douglass would go on errands, he would take his book with him and exchange bread for short lessons from the literate white children. The white children were more than happy to teach Douglass in exchange for food. Eventually, Douglass learned to read and managed to acquire a book titled The Columbian Orator, which enlightened him to his tragic circumstance and provided him arguments against institutional slavery. At times, Douglass felt that reading was more of a curse than a gift because it opened his eyes to his "wretched condition." Once Douglass educated himself, his feelings of dissatisfaction intensified and motivated him to escape the clutches of slavery.

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When Douglass went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, he was astonished by the mistress's kindness. He found her "entirely unlike any other white woman" he had ever encountered and attributed her demeanor to the fact that she had been a weaver by trade, fairly removed from the world of slavery. Mrs. Auld began teaching Douglass the alphabet, and then she started teaching him how to use letters to form short words. Soon after this, Mr. Auld discovered her transgressions and forbade her to continue these efforts. He sternly told his wife that if she taught Douglass to read, "there would be no keeping him" because "it would forever unfit him to be a slave." It was at this moment that Douglass understood that literacy was his pathway to freedom.

Douglass needed further instruction, so he then sought out little white boys in the town streets to become his instructors. They had the necessary knowledge and Douglass could provide a serving of bread which they wanted, so they were willing participants. Douglass worked with these boys each time he was sent on an errand, always sneaking a book out with him. He built a sincere friendship with these young boys during this time and remained sentimental about the role they played in his literacy even many years later.

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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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