Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself

by Frederick Douglass
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Literacy was of paramount importance to Frederick Douglass at every point in his escape from slavery and, of course, creating a record of this escape. First and perhaps most importantly, Douglass's motivation to read and write was directly related to his desire for freedom. His master, Mr. Auld, was strongly opposed to slaves being literate, saying that if Douglass learned to read

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.

At this point, Douglass realized that one of the ways in which slaveholders imposed their will on their slaves was by keeping them ignorant. He determined to learn to read because it was against the interests and wishes of his oppressors that he should do so, and therefore clearly in his own interests. Initially, the experience was painful. Douglass says that he sometimes thought learning to read had been a curse:

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.

Soon, however, Douglass's literacy helped him to achieve a position of leadership and authority and among his fellow slaves, and to take the lead in organizing plans to escape. He also passed on his knowledge, teaching his fellow slaves to read and write, giving them the means to create a network of resistance and try to seek freedom for themselves. Finally, though crucially for us, it is through his clear and compelling writing that we know about Frederick Douglass and are able to appreciate his extraordinary achievements today.

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