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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass
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What does Frederick Douglass mean when he says "Bread of Knowledge"?

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It seems likely that those few proponents in the pro-slavery ranks who might actually have read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, an American Slave, would have cursed the nameless street-children who helped Frederick Douglass to acquire the ability to read. This basic skill became a crucial asset in the creation of an orator whose renowned eloquence would make him one of the most powerful forces of the abolition movement.

Douglass describes the haphazard process of his education in chapter 7 of his autobiography. Sophie Auld, the wife of his master, worked against his efforts at self-education after initially being sympathetic. She had fallen under the influence of her husband's (correct) belief that literacy would make any slave dangerously aware of the fundamental injustice of their plight.

Thus thwarted, Douglass decides to seek his education in the streets, where even the most impoverished white boys had a skill he lacked: literacy.

The plan which I adopted,and the one by which I was most successful,was that of making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers.

He always takes bread into the street, something which these poor boys sadly lack.

This bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give me that more valuable bread of knowledge.

As his reading skill grows, he comes to understand the terrible truth of his existence as a slave.

The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers...who had stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery. I loathed them as being the meanest as well as the most wicked of men.

In this manner, the bread of knowledge has led the young Frederick Douglass to the hunger for freedom.

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In Chapter 7 of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass describes his life in Baltimore as a young slave in the city. His mistress teaches him the elementary steps of reading, as she does not yet realize that the society around her condemns the teaching of slaves. The society believes that reading will corrupt them and make them unfit as slaves. 

Douglass writes, "I used also to carry bread with me...I was much better off in this regard than many of the poor white children in our neighborhood. This bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give me that more valuable bread of knowledge." As an urban slave, as opposed to a slave on the plantation, he has access to bread, which makes him much better fed than some of the poor whites around him. He uses this bread to bribe white children into teaching him to read. He believes that learning to read is more important than having food; therefore the "bread of knowledge" is more important than actual bread. 

Douglass's readers were well acquainted with the Bible, in which bread is often equated with the essence of life. To Douglass, knowledge is the essential part of life, and he is willing to take a risk by bribing white children in order to learn. He knows that learning will help free him from slavery because he will have the ability to free his mind and body from his captors. 

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The phrase you are asking about can be found in Chapter 7 of this book.  Douglass uses it to refer to the ability to read.  He talks about how he used to go out among the poor white kids and give them bread that he had (he had more to eat than they did).  In return, he would get from them the bread of knowledge as they would help him learn to read.

What Douglass means by this phrase is that knowledge was very important to him.  We often use the word bread to simply mean nourishment in general -- something that gives us life.  Douglass refers to knowledge in this way because getting it was so important to his life.

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