Why does Frederick Douglass describe literacy as being so important in his Narrative?
In chapter VI of his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Douglass describes the experience of being taken into the home, at the age of seven or eight, of Mr. and Mrs. Auld. Mrs. Sophia Auld, the young Frederick discovers, is initially very kind, having never owned slaves before and is unaccustomed to treating other human beings harshly solely because of the color of their skin. When Frederick is first taken into the Auld home, then, he is treated far more kindly than by previous owners and by whites in general. Mrs. Auld’s humanity manifested itself, among other ways, in believing that the young slave in her charge should be as capable of reading as other children. Very early in the learning process, however, Mr. Auld discovered that his wife was teaching a slave how to read and put an immediate end to Frederick’s education. Mr. Auld’s rationale for prohibiting slaves from learning to read was explained by Douglass in this chapter of his narrative:
“. . . Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “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.”
Mr. Auld’s termination of Frederick’s education affected him very deeply and the reasons advanced by his “owner” would resonate with him for the rest of his life. Indeed, so profoundly did Mr. Auld’s words affect Frederick that the experience became an elemental component of his character. In Douglass’s words,
“These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.”
Literacy is so important in Frederick Douglass’s narrative because he learned at an early age the linkage between knowledge and freedom. A slave who learned to read and write would, precisely as Mr. Auld had suggested, be a slave more aware of the nature of his circumstances and less willing to submit to the impositions of others.
As Douglass continues his discussion of the necessity of literacy, he expresses a debt of sorts to both Aulds, Mrs. Auld for initiating the educational process, and Mr. Auld for explaining why that process would ultimately undermine the institution of slavery.
Douglass cites his learning to read as a seminal moment in his life. It was at this point, he suggests, that he became self-aware, and came to an understanding of what slavery really was. When he lived with the Aulds in Baltimore, Mrs. Auld undertook the task of teaching him basic literacy. He realized how important reading was by Mr. Auld's angry reaction to his wife's actions. Auld claimed that Douglass would be be "forever unfit" to be a slave if he learned to read, and at that moment, the young Douglass had an epiphany:
I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom...I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.
He did gain literacy, and at the age of twelve got his hands on a copy of The Columbian Orator, an anthology of classic speeches and essays from antiquity to the Enlightenment. Douglass was particularly moved by a speech by British abolitionist Richard Sheridan, which exposed him to a "bold denunciation of slavery, and a powerful vindication of human rights." The rhetoric of Sheridan and other writers both inspired the eager Douglass and reminded him of the disconnect between the rights articulated by these philosophers and the realities he faced as a slave. Once he learned to read, Douglass says, "freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever."
In chapter 6, Frederick Douglas explains how Mrs. Auld began teaching him the alphabet and how to spell small words. Unfortunately, her husband found out that Mrs. Auld had been giving Frederick reading instruction and forbid her from teaching him anymore. Mr. Auld told his wife that if Frederick learned to read he would become unmanageable and not serve his master properly. At that moment, Frederick realized that learning to read would be his pathway to freedom. After having this revelation, Frederick enlisted the help of other literate boys in order to teach him how to read. While he was running errands Frederick would take a book and a piece of bread with him. He would then give the poor white boys food in exchange for reading lessons. While reading The Columbian Orator, Frederick was greatly influenced by a story about a slave winning his freedom from his master, as well as one of Sheridan's mighty speeches concerning Catholic emancipation. By reading these documents, Frederick learned about human rights and how to influence the conscience of a slaveholder. Reading gave Frederick the knowledge and wisdom needed to challenge his slavery. He would never again be happy in servitude and strove to gain his freedom.