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Understanding The Impact of Illiteracy Through Fredrick Douglass’ Story as a Slave

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Frederick Douglass was an African American slave during the 1800’s who endured many gruesome hardships at the hands of slaveholders and the oppressive society around him. Throughout his years as a slave, he slowly taught himself to read and write- a talent which eventually allowed for his escape to the North and the writing of his own narrative. His narrative details the events of his life including all of his different masters, the fellow slaves he came to know, the many calamities he or others faced as a result of slavery, and also his escape to freedom. One of the many themes presented in this narrative is that of education vs. ignorance, and The Narrative of Frederick Douglass was so fascinating because it provided a first hand commentary on ignorance as a form of slavery, education as a key to enlightenment and freedom, and how the ignorance of the slaveholders themselves gave way to a grossly inaccurate understanding of the mentality of slaves.

Slaves, including Douglass himself, began their lives already robbed of a sense of self. As Douglass said it best, “I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant” (Douglass 1).

In addition to not knowing their age or birthday, many slaves did not know their heritage. Slaveholders would often impregnate their female slaves, resulting in mulatto children that would most often not be informed of their parentage. Even if a slave was born of two slave parents, oftentimes part of the family would be sold away and the child would never know his/her parents. Such simple information like a birthdate and family further deepened the wedge between slaves and whites. Douglass even mentions that as a child, “The white children could tell their ages [and] I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege” (Douglass 1).

The pervasive ignorance that was forced upon black slaves continued on into adulthood. If there was just one thing that slaveholders understood, it was that denying slaves the right to education- including reading and writing- did a better job than any physical punishment to keep the downtrodden slave where he was. Education held the key to an enlightenment of a slave, and by depriving it, whites could more easily control the slave. One of Douglass’ masters, Mr. Hugh Auld, unwittingly gave away this most important strategy for controlling slaves when he said,

“Learning would spoil the best n—-r in the world…[he] would forever unfit 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” (Douglass 29)

These few short sentences from Auld revealed that ignorance was the key tool in retaining slaves. The statements, “he would be unfit to be a slave,” and that the slave would be “discontented and unhappy,” suggest that if a slave were to become educated, he would no longer be resolved to bear the burden of the white man, he would secede from the clear injustice that is the institution of slavery, and he would in fact achieve some sense of self worth and apperception as a human being.

Mr. Auld’s prediction that a slave would become, “discontented and unhappy” if he ascertained an education did come true. Once Douglass heard the genuineness of his Master’s words, he sought out immediately to learn to read and write, and with it came also a curse. While Douglass was granted with the ability to denounce slavery and see it for what it really was- a perverse intrusion of human rights- he was also, in his words, presented with a “horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out” (Douglass 35). His enlightenment did not relinquish from itself the keys to the chains that bound him or the map that would lead him to freedom. His education only elevated his animosity for the whole of the institution of slavery, and this is well demonstrated in his words;

“The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery. I loathed them as being the meanest as well as the most wicked of men” (Douglass 35).

While an education did eventually aid in the success of his pursuit of freedom, it temporarily sent him into a hopelessness that nearly broke him of his spirit to persevere. The weight of the knowledge that he gained about his position in the world was tremendous, but he surpassed this and was able to escape from a world that enslaved him from birth on the basis of his skin color. Slaveholders understood that by withholding education from slaves, they were more easily controlled, but they did not understand much else about the mentality of slaves. There were many instances in Douglass’ narrative that betray their poor understanding of slaves and refusal to look deeper. For instance, as Douglass writes, many northerners and slave holders understood slave singing as a testament to their happiness, but this is very much the opposite of the truth: “Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears” (Douglass 12). The fact that the slaves’ lamentations were interpreted as sounds of contentedness is yet another act of oppression, because no sounds that the slave uttered- their songs, let alone their words- were ever truly heard. As Douglass reflected on those songs of sorrow, he says:

“I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do” (Douglass 11).

This quote does the best to reveal the extent to which all partakers in the institution of slavery chose their ignorance over understanding of the slave. Another instance of this is when Douglass’ Master Auld would give back to Douglass one percent of his earnings for work that week, after collecting the rest for himself. It is easy to imagine Auld bestowing that stereotype of the good slave master on himself, after all, he was electing to give his slave something of what he earned, and his slave should be grateful. As Douglass writes, however, it proves to have the opposite effect. He wrote, “I regarded it as a sort of admission of my right to the whole. The fact that he gave me any part of my wages was proof, to my mind, that he believed me entitled to the whole of them” (Douglass 88). Here, yet again, is a slaveholder’s obvious misunderstanding of the slave. They overlooked the absurd injustice of taking a person’s weekly wages, and vindicated themselves by handing back just one percent of it.

The ironic motif revealed from this narrative is that the ignorance of the slaveholder was a chosen one and the ignorance of the slave was forced upon them. The institution of slavery and the denial of education to the slave in order to keep them subdued was an atrocity that mars the history of the United States, but it should never be forgotten. By virtue, “education and slavery are incompatible with each other,” and the discussion of how slavery ate away at the humanity of the people of the United States for so many years must never come to a close (Douglass 33). Modern education of the events of the past will aid in preventing a future atrocity such as slavery, and it is therefore why we should ascribe ourselves to always pursuing “the power of truth, love, and justice” (Douglass 108).

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Understanding the Impact of Illiteracy through Fredrick Douglass’ Story as a Slave. (2019, January 03). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 20, 2021, from
“Understanding the Impact of Illiteracy through Fredrick Douglass’ Story as a Slave.” GradesFixer, 03 Jan. 2019,
Understanding the Impact of Illiteracy through Fredrick Douglass’ Story as a Slave. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 20 Oct. 2021].
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