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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass

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How does learning to read and write change Douglas, as he outlines in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave?

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Learning to read and write changes the entire course of Frederick Douglass 's life. After Mrs. Auld stops teaching him the basics of reading, Douglass makes unknowing teachers out of little white boys he encounters in the streets. For some bread, the boys are quite willing to share their knowledge...

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Learning to read and write changes the entire course of Frederick Douglass's life. After Mrs. Auld stops teaching him the basics of reading, Douglass makes unknowing teachers out of little white boys he encounters in the streets. For some bread, the boys are quite willing to share their knowledge with Douglass. As his understanding of words grows, so does his understanding of the world around him.

In chapter 7, Douglass explains that the more he reads, the more he detests those who have enslaved him. Reading opens his mind to evaluate the conditions of slavery, and it simultaneously tortures his soul and liberates him. He says that reading "opened [his] eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out." He understands increasingly well the innate injustice in the plight of slaves but feels powerless to change his situation.

He begins to hear a new word: abolition. It intrigues him from the beginning because it always seems to be in the context of slaves who have escaped, killed a master, or have otherwise rebelled. The dictionary's definition doesn't help (as it doesn't provide the social context of the word he's hearing), and after patiently waiting, he encounters the word with ample context in a city newspaper. Douglass begins to deeply long for this freedom which abolitionists fight for.

Reading and writing not only afford Douglass the ability to obtain information that he otherwise would be shielded from (such as the efforts of abolitionists) but also allow his mind to contemplate ideas and evaluate his plight in ways he couldn't do before. Literacy changes Douglass's life because it affords him the ability of discernment. No longer must he only think about a world from a white man's point of view. Through literacy, Douglass is able to begin shaping his world into one of his own desires and knowledge. He is finally able to seek a destiny that is his own.

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In chapter 7, Frederick Douglass elaborates on how the ability to read and write affected his life and perception of slavery. After Mrs. Auld's husband chastises her for beginning to teach Frederick how to read, he understands that being literate is advantageous and goes to great lengths to learn how to read and write. Frederick learns to read by giving poor white children bread in exchange for reading lessons. He then begins reading The Columbian Orator and Sheridan’s powerful speeches on and in behalf of Catholic emancipation. These documents have a significant effect on Frederick's perception of slavery and teach him the importance of human rights. Frederick becomes aware of his unfortunate condition as a slave and resents his master. He also mentions that his education at times seemed like a curse because it opened his eyes to his horrific circumstances as a slave. Frederick's ability to read allows him to understand his terrible condition, which motivates him to seek freedom. His ability to write gives him the ability to forge documents and communicate with others. Overall, Frederick's education enlightens him to his horrific condition as a slave and motivates him to run away. Once Frederick escapes slavery, he is armed with the knowledge needed to deliver powerful, moving speeches in favor of emancipating the slaves.

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How does learning to read and write change Douglas?

In chapter 6, Frederick went to Baltimore where his mistress, Mrs. Auld, began to teach him to read. Master Hugh Auld, when he learned of the matter put a stop to it. He said, ““if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) 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. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy” (16).

These words proved to be prophetically true. Even though Mrs. Auld complied with her husband’s wishes, Frederick learned to read and write. He eventually acquired a copy of “The Columbian Orator” and Sheridan’s speeches on Catholic emancipation. As he read further and learned more, Mr. Auld’s (Master Hugh’s) predictions came true. Frederick became supremely unhappy.

“As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity” (19).

Mr. Auld’s prediction, that it would make him “discontented and unhappy” is clear. The further prediction that it would “unfit him to be a slave” proved to be the most prophetic. After reading those first thinkers writing on the behalf of abolition, Frederick saw slavery as entirely unbearable so he did not rest until he became free.

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