Frederick Douglass

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Student Question

What common themes are found in the excerpts by Frederick Douglass and Sherman Alexie?

Quick answer:

Sherman Alexie's “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me” and Frederick Douglass's “Learning to Read and Write” both revolve around the themes of the how reading can change a person's life and how discrimination can rob people of the joys and opportunities of reading.

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Both Frederick Douglass in “Learning to Read and Write” and Sherman Alexie in “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me” speak about the life-changing experience of reading and the discrimination that prevented many of their peers from grasping the opportunities reading brings.

Douglass discovered a whole new world when he illegally (for he was a slave) learned to read and write. He was intent upon learning, for his mistress (before she obeyed her husband and stopped) taught him just enough to whet his appetite for words and the knowledge they bring. Douglass seized any opportunity to practice his reading, often receiving instruction from poor white boys in exchange for bread. The more Douglass learned, however, the angrier he became about the injustice of his enslaved condition. Reading had introduced him to an abundance of new ideas, one of which was freedom, and sometimes he even envied those who could not read for their ignorance and contentment. But for, Douglass there was no turning back. Reading had changed his life and his perspective.

Sherman Alexie also discovered the joy of reading, and throughout his childhood he devoured any book (or magazine or bulletin or cereal box) he could get his hands on. Books and words formed the very center of his life, and he realized that he loved them so much because he was “trying to save” his live. He was well aware of the actions and attitudes of the other Native children around him. They learned quickly that they were supposed to be stupid. They were not to answer questions in school. They were not to succeed. But through his reading, Alexie discovered that this was not true. He was not stupid—far from it, in fact—and he determined that he would succeed and he would try to save the lives of others in the process by teaching them the value and joy of reading.

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