As a modern day audience, for the most part, our reaction to a slave narrative is often one which fills us with remorse and regret. Frederick Douglass’ narrative concerning his quest for education and specifically, how to read and write, is an example of such an instance. As a white, middle-class person of the twenty-first century, it unsettles me and fills me with a deep-seated feeling of remorse for the actions of our ancestors.
Upon settling with the Auld family, Douglass began to learn how to read and write with the assistance of his Mistress. However, upon finding out about these activities, her husband (Douglass’ master) forbade her to continue: “If you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) to read there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.” (Therein lies the underlying issue with the concept of slavery: the attitude was that they were less intelligent, less capable and unable to exist as white men do, but at the first sign of Douglass beginning to learn, his Master stops it and openly admits that Douglass would no longer be ‘content’ with simply just being a slave because he would know better and develop aspirations, which juxtaposes completely with the aforementioned view. I would like to console myself with the view that perhaps his Master meant well by trying to limit Douglass’ expectations of life, but I am unconvinced that his motive was anything other than the potential loss of compliancy in one of his slaves.
However, Frederick Douglass was a tenacious man and having already learnt his basic alphabet and some smaller words, he set out to learn more: “The plan which I adopted, and the one by which I was most successful, was that of making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street.” (Douglass 48) This in itself shows the determination of Douglass to learn and to better himself. This plan would have been seen as being extremely audacious at the time and Douglass may well have been aware of that but chose to ignore it. He planned his errands around his learning: “When I was sent on errands, I always took my book with me and by doing one part of my errand quickly, I found time to get a lesson before my return.” This would have been extremely risky behaviour for a slave at this time and to me, it shows how determined he was to learn. When considering a lot of children today, his desire to learn is unparalleled by the majority of students now. This represents how precious it was to him.
When Douglass was twelve years old, he encountered a book called ‘The Columbian Orator’ which featured a duologue between a slave and his master where the slave’s intelligent argument resulted in his emancipation. This affected the young Douglass greatly: “These were choice documents to me. I read them over and over again with unabated interest.” (Douglass 49-50) It was through these words that he saw the potential to escape his fate and it also grew a deep hatred for his captors. It was through his literacy-based education that helped him to grow and eventually leave his enslaved life behind. Douglass became a prominent speaker in the fight for abolition and was living proof of his argument that slaves had the intelligence to function in the same way as white people do within society. I am of the opinion that Frederick Douglass is a national hero because of his attitude to life and his lust for education; he was a beacon of hope for other slaves and a thorn in the side of the white supremacist leaders. His desire to learn to read demonstrated to him and the world that slaves were people too.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. USA: Forgotten Books, 2008.