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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass

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Which quote from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave describes the barriers to slave literacy and its impact on the narrative?

Quick answer:

The passage in chapter 6 in which Mr. Auld forbids his wife to help Douglass describes the barriers raised against slave literacy and the overwhelming difficulties slaves encountered in learning to read and write. This information shows how great Douglass's achievement really was.

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In chapter 6 of the Narrative, Frederick Douglass describes the swift and painful conclusion of his first attempts to acquire basic literacy:

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, 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 n----r an inch, he will take an ell. A n----r should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best n----r in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that n----r (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.”

This quotation describes several different barriers raised against slave literacy. First, there was the law. Then came popular prejudice and peer pressure from other slaveowners. Finally, there was a barrage of arguments that would certainly be raised against anyone, like Mrs. Auld, who was inclined to assist slaves in their studies. These arguments, even if not convincing, might wear down the resistance. The last of them is particularly insidious, suggesting that it is in the slave's own interests to remain illiterate.

This information makes it clear just how difficult and admirable Douglass's achievement was. It may well be that, from the slave-master's perspective, Mr. Auld was at least partly right. There was "no keeping" Frederick Douglass, in whom literacy not only kindled the desire for freedom, but helped him to achieve it.

This is true both directly and indirectly, since Douglass says that he was forced to adopt various strategies of concealment in order to learn to read, strategies that later served him well in his plans for escape. Reading increased Douglass's independence and had a profound effect on the development of his mind, as well as providing him with models for his own great works of literature.

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