Why does Frederick Douglass describe literacy as being so important in his Narrative?

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rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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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."