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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass
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Why were literacy and reading so important to Douglass in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave?

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Literacy was of great importance to Frederick Douglass at every stage of his escape from slavery. First, it fostered and shaped his ambition to be free, a result predicted by Auld, his slave-master, when he discovered that his wife was teaching Douglass to read and forbade her to continue, saying...

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Literacy was of great importance to Frederick Douglass at every stage of his escape from slavery. First, it fostered and shaped his ambition to be free, a result predicted by Auld, his slave-master, when he discovered that his wife was teaching Douglass to read and forbade her to continue, saying that being educated could only make a slave "discontented and unhappy." Douglass quickly understood that anyone who had to live as a slave ought to be discontented and unhappy with his lot and that masters were able to wield power over slaves by keeping them in ignorance.

When Douglass had learned to read, he came across a book called The Columbian Orator, which contained a dialogue between a master and his slave. The slave refuted his master's arguments in favor of slavery so impressively that the master eventually set him free. Reading furnished Douglass with an increased desire for freedom and a range of theoretical arguments against slavery. It proved to be a practical tool in making plans for escape and gave him a position of authority among the other slaves, some of whom he also taught to read. When he had escaped, his ability to read and write was instrumental in allowing him to find employment and achieve financial security. Finally, Douglass's literacy allowed him to record his experiences and become a powerful advocate for the abolition of slavery, as well as leaving a valuable work of literature and history for the education of future generations.

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After overhearing Master Auld chastising his wife for beginning to teach him how to read, Frederick becomes more determined than ever to learn to read and write. Frederick then begins to exchange bits of food with poor white children in exchange for reading lessons and practices writing at the shipyard. Frederick also acquires and reads The Columbian Orator, which includes Sheridan’s mighty speeches on Catholic emancipation. The specific texts that Frederick reads illuminate his terrible condition as a slave and motivate him to run away. Frederick describes the importance of literacy and its effects by saying,

The reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery; but while they relieved me of one difficulty, they brought on another even more painful than the one of which I was relieved. The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. (Douglass, 53)

In addition to opening Frederick's eyes to his horrific condition as a slave, literacy also allows Frederick to teach other slaves how to read and write, and he eventually forges notes which give him permission to travel to Baltimore. Later in life, Frederick becomes a staunch abolitionist and is able to chronicle his experience as a slave. Overall, literacy plays a significant role in Frederick's life by motivating him to escape slavery and argue against the horrific, unjust institution.

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When Douglass is a slave as a child in Baltimore, his mistress, Sophia Auld, begins to teach him to read. When her husband finds out, he demands that she stop immediately, as literacy, in his mind, ruins a slave. Being able to read makes a slave less servile. It is at this moment that Douglass understands the importance of literacy in winning his own freedom. He realizes that literacy is the key to his escape from slavery.

Being literate allows Douglass to read arguments against slavery and to free his own mind from the justifications of the institution of slavery that he constantly hears around him. Reading allows him to better formulate arguments against slavery. In addition, literacy has a practical function, as it allows Douglass to find a job in the North after he has escaped from slavery. While he is contemplating escape, he feels reassured that he can get a job as a literate person, so literacy makes him bolder about seeking escape.

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Most slaves in the U.S. during Frederick Douglass's time were never taught to read or write. Their owners would not allow it, and in some places it was illegal. Being able to read meant it would be easier for slaves to escape to freedom and to live their own lives independently afterward. Douglass saw very clearly that literacy and education meant freedom, as did the white people around him. 

When young Douglass lived with a woman named Mrs. Auld, she was at first very kind to him and started teaching him how to read. She had never owned a slave before and did not know that most white slave owners thought slaves should be treated cruelly. However, when Mr. Auld found out, he told Mrs. Auld that you could not teach a slave to read, because it would make them dissatisfied with being a slave, and then they would not be worth anything to anyone.

This situation began Douglass's strong desire to become literate and subsequently become a free man. Additionally, it was because of his literacy that he was able to become an influential voice for abolition. 

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