The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a story that features the coercion Fredrick Douglass encountered before his escape to freedom. In this autobiography, Douglass offers the readers with first-hand information about the pain, brutality, and humiliation of the slaves. He points out the cruelty of this institution on both the perpetrator and the victims. As a slave, Douglass witnessed the brutalization of the blacks whose only crime was to be born of the wrong color (Cruse 32). This narrative of Douglass is a very personal description of a worrying time in the author’s life, but it also appropriately portrays him as a competent writer with intensely rational thoughts. With the help of paradox, unique language rules, effusive diction, and smart metaphors, Douglass depicts his ability to eloquently articulate his feelings and his personal dissension.
Douglass’s escape from slavery and eventual freedom are inseparable from his movingly narrated struggle for literacy. Douglass saw slavery as a degrading institution. In his narratives, he sets an example to the other slaves on insisting upon their humanity to be acknowledged. Douglass recognized becoming an educated slave was believed to be having too much influence as it eventually made him aware of unfair state of affairs of slavery. For a slave to become educated was not at all tolerated. If a slave is acquainted with how to read and write, then such an individual is not eligible to be called a slave. Frederick Douglass was able to prevail over the social limitations and conflicts that forced upon by slavery on him in his expedition for literacy. Even though his voyage was tough and in opposition to all odds, he was aware of the fact that his only break out from the narrow-minded slavery filled world was to gain knowledge through education. By accomplishing literacy he eventually obtained the power and capability to write his own destiny. His ambition of becoming an equal citizen in America alongside the whites was astonishing. Literacy, according to Douglas, also impacted the lives of slaves by allowing them read the holy bible, and getting inspiration for the Christian religion.
In this autobiography, Douglass reveals a multitude of ways in which African-Americans were mistreated while in slavery. Those days English was the most spoken language and many kids were not used to speaking good English at home. This became a problem at school as most of the teachers spoke English. Black children were even punished a number of times because of them violating the school rule of not being able to communicate in English. There were issues regarding racism and social injustice. There were numerous racist remarks at school which made schooling extremely uncomfortable.
Nevertheless, through literacy, Douglass was able to create a good relationship with fellow slaves, since he realized through their songs that they needed him. In additional to that, he gave lessons to almost forty slaves about plantation to read the New Testament, at the Freeland's farm in a Sunday school. This improved their lives immeasurably. The majority of the slaves suffered immensely, but they were afraid to express it openly they only did it through their songs, and tales as their masters could not understand their native language.
Douglass had learnt to read by just observing the white children who lived in his neighborhood as he did not get schooling. He learnt to write by observing the writings of other people with whom he worked with. Douglass makes a strong statement that literacy and slavery are incompatible with each other because, in his childhood, when he was reading a newspaper, his mistress comes and snatches the paper away from him stating that slaves are not allowed to read and write. The above statement is strong reaction to the experience he had. Literacy was Douglass's first step on the road to his freedom as well as of his fellow African slaves. Also, Douglas knew less about the slavery unfairness, until he found the book The Columbian Orator, which was explaining the cases against slavery. He was angered by what he learnt about this book, and what the masters have done to the slaves. The book made him think that slavery was his fate, and there was no escape from it.
Douglass’s autobiography is a courageous work, as it confronts the slavery institution, and the misuse of Christianity by the slave owners to sell fellow human beings. The slaves were not seen as human beings, but as commodities, which led to demeaning them as objects of use. Douglass could not stand his humanity being despised he salvaged his human nature through self-determination, and striving to find education. The knowledge Douglas acquired changed him, and made him understand why the whites acted the way they did. He writes, "I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty-to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man" (Douglass 48). Getting education was his first step to his freedom because he was able to learn the white man’s tricks. He was determined to learn the white man’s knowledge in order to attain his freedom, and that of his fellow Africans (Zinn 201). Douglass says, “From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom" (Douglass 48). This was after he overhears Mr. Auld reprimanding Mrs. Auld for teaching him how to read. Mr. Auld opened Douglass’s eyes after he was against his wife teaching him, and this made him so determined to obtain education. Mr. Auld made him understand that, education was important for him, and it could help him to become independent and stop being inferior as the whites take Africans. Mr. Auld’s words were "If you give a nigger and inch, he will take an ell" (Douglass, 48). This increased his quest for education, since he had learnt that, he needed it to free himself from the institution of slavery. Douglass sought education with all his might.
The journey to freedom for Douglass was not that easy. His journey was just a one man’s journey, and fight for freedom. Douglass paid a price of blood to become educated. This is a price most slaves were unwilling to pay, but he did all he can to access any material that could make him literate. He found the truth and redemption by knowing the truth, and it was only through knowledge. Despite getting knowledge, Douglass at times was mentally tortured for knowing the truth, and wished he had not known because it was harder for him after knowing the truth. He confesses, “I was sometimes prompted to take my life” (75). In this autobiography, Douglass explains how education helped him to recognize the injustices of slavery, and the requisite to escape from this brutal institution. According to Gates and McKay (463), he escaped from what everyone called a nightmare, and he became the first and most famous black abolitionist in the American history. He became a famous abolitionist who gave an account of his life to help the rest of the Africans to overcome fear, and join in the fight against slavery (Gatewood 342). His will to education and gaining confidence to speak openly, helped him in his later life, as he was joined by many organizations in speaking publicly about the evils of slavery. Douglas became one of the leading figures in the American Antislavery Society.
Douglass argues that the blacks were rational humans who were mistreated, and brutalized by their masters. Fredrick explains how the black suffered in the hands of their masters, but he fails to explain how the slaves dealt with their masters by beating them up, and stealing from them. Malcolm X taught himself how to read and write using dictionaries and books on his own while in prison. Just like Fredrick Douglass, his ability to become literate gave him a new light in understanding the world (Waldschmidt 54). He felt like a free man with the education he had received despite the fact that he was in prison. The difference between the two is that Malcolm never wasted the education he received; he started using it immediately compared to Douglass who at most times regretted being literate. Malcolm X says, "I saw that the best thing I could do was acquire hold of a dictionary - to study, to learn some words." (196), he was determined to achieve the ability to read and write. He was happy with his success of being literate as he also confesses that, "in fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life." (Malcolm X). On the other hand, Fredrick spent his time regretting why he got education, and even thought that being literate is being overrated. They both had different views of acquiring education. Malcolm was a letter writer, and he searched for education in order to be able to express himself clearly in his letters. On the other hand, Douglass sought education juts to learn how the slaves were mistreated by their masters. Education was vital to them, but Malcolm X used it immediately, while Douglass was reluctant because, he was not sure if he did the right thing in acquiring it.
Douglass later in life, after the action in Narrative of the Life ends, became a spokesperson who gave a number of speeches about his experiences in slavery. The education he had acquired empowered him into speaking boldly about slavery (McGary and Lawson 102). Through his writings and speeches, many were inspired, and he has been linked to the history of American Philosophy. He became an abolitionist.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, Written by himself. New York: Blight, 2003. Print.
McGary, Howard and Lawson, Bill E. Between Slavery and Freedom: Philosophy and American Slavery. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992. Print.
Gatewood, Willard B. "Frederick Douglass and the Building of a 'Wall of Anti-Slavery Fire', 1845–1846. An Essay Review". The Florida Historical Quarterly 59. 39 (1981): 340–344.
Cruse, Harold. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Historical Analysis of the Failure of Black Leadership, New York Review Books Classics. New York: New York Review Books, 2005. Print.
Gates, Henry Louis and McKay, Nellie Y. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2004. Print.
Malcolm X: A Homemade Education. Form the Autobiography of Malcolm X, 1965. PDF File
Zinn, Howard and Arnove. Anthony. Voices of a People's History of the United States. New York City: Seven Stories Press, 2009. Print.
Waldschmidt-Nelson, Britta. Dreams and Nightmares: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the Struggle for Black Equality in America (New Perspectives on the History of the South). Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2012. Print.