Why is the claim, "It is almost an unpardonable offense to teach slaves to read in this Christian country," ironic?

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Jessica Akcinar eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This statement is ironic because reading is usually thought to be a good thing, something everyone should be able to do in order to gain knowledge and power. However, in this “Christian” society, the white man realized that is was not to their benefit to teach slaves to read. Reading gave slaves the tool to think and reason, leading to the questioning of slavery. On the other hand, from the slaves view, this skill in the hands of a slave was cruel since he did not have the power to use his newfound knowledge.  Douglass, however, broke these binds.

Douglass was taught the alphabet as a young boy by his white mistress, who was later forbidden to teach the child anything. Later, he found ways to further his education. Literacy lead Douglass to see freedom as an attainable goal. Because of his literacy, he was made aware of the injustices of slavery and was given the tools to become a great orator which helped him become an abolitionist activist. Reading made him contemplate why he was not given the same rights as white people. ''The reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery....’’  

Ultimately, reading cultivated a yearning for liberty in Douglass. His learning lead to an agitation that would not be quieted by corporeal beatings or hard work. Eventually, his edification lead him to break away from slavery.

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