Skip to main content

Open Collection of Student Writing (OCSW)

Frederick Douglass and his Relevant Reading

Reading is one of the most important tools for knowledge that a person can have, that’s why everyone, with no exception, should have the right to have this ability, but the history shows that this is not the reality of all people, and the famous Frederick Douglass is an example of it. This story means the relevance of reading for an individual.

The narrative reports the most important and relevant facts he had been through in his journey from slavery to freedom. He was born in 1817 or 1818, and he is not sure about his birth date, just like the majority of the slaves in that time. He was separate from his parents right after he was born, because this was another thing that slaveholders use to do with their slaves to keep them as much dehumanized as possible, so it would be easier to control them. His mother was Harriet Bailey and he was not sure about who his father was. Unlike the other slaves, Douglass use to work in the household of the Great House Farm, instead of in the fields where slaves were beaten and whipped for breaking rules and use to work exhaustively. Although this hard life as a slave, with no clothes neither food enough, Frederick Douglass wrote his own destiny by fighting for what he wanted since he was shown the amazing world of reading.

This world was revealed to him when he was around 7 years old and his new mistress, Sophia Auld, very kindly taught him first the A, B, C and then how to spell words of three or four letters(1). But soon her husband, Mr. Hugh Auld, found out she was teaching a slave and told her to stop. “Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now, said he, if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.(2)” Mr. Auld used the word “spoil” to say that by educating slaves, they would become unmanageable and they would hardly receive orders, so they will not be the same kind of slaves they were before, not even so useful for their masters as they were before.

When Douglass saw Mr. Auld’s concern about his reading lessons, he realized how much was hidden from the slaves in terms to keep the slavery something natural for those black people. “From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.(3)” Frederick Douglass could finally understand what was going on with his people and that there was a way out from that terrible situation they lived, he understood the meaning of slavery and who he had been for all those years. Starting there, he decided to do whatever it takes to be free. “I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.(4)”

Douglass did not just take that decision but started working hard to get better each day. He found another way to keep teaching himself to read without his mistress help. He became friend of some white boys who lived around and using some trickery skills and he made the boys help him to read and write. “The plan which I adopted, […] was that of making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers. […] I finally succeeded in learning to read.(5)”

The more Douglass improved his skills to read and write the more knowledge about “slavery” and “abolition” he got. He went deep in his lessons and also started

using some religious documents that gave tong to interesting thoughts of his soul(6), according to him, and enabled him to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery(7). Learning to read changed his life forever, and he knew that, he felt how  slavery was injurious to people (there is a passage in the narrative where he says that slavery was such injurious to him as it was to Mrs. Auld(8)) and he wanted to join the movement he learned about (antislavery); he finally discovered the evil behind his reality.

Reading for him was the door for freedom and definitely the passage for a better future, because reading itself is a world of possibilities, new thoughts, interpretations, creation of opinions, and for Frederick Douglass, reading could determine the difference between who he was from what people wanted him to be.

Later on, he would even use his knowledge to educate other slaves so they could be free too and join him in his battle against slavery. The despair was such that the slaves did not care about the punishments they had, the most important was the hope grown inside them and the desire to fight.

Years later, after moving to Massachusetts, the new Frederick Douglass was able to get more engaged in the abolitionist movement, but this time, as a writer and an orator.

Using the skills to read and write as a profession is just one of the multiple reasons why they have always been so important in any society in any time in history. Reading in general improves imagination (allows you to create and think), it improves the ability to focus and to concentrate, it improves the memory, the ability to communicate and it can be also an entertainment. Above all, reading in the Frederick Douglass’ narrative is the connection between literacy and freedom.

Sources

1 Frederick Douglass. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. (New York: Penguin Books, 1982). Page 78.

2 Frederick Douglass. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. (New York: Penguin Books, 1982). Page 78.

3 Frederick Douglass. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. (New York: Penguin Books, 1982). Page 78.

4 Frederick Douglass. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. (New York: Penguin Books, 1982). Page 79.

5 Frederick Douglass. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. (New York: Penguin Books, 1982). Page 82.

6 Frederick Douglass. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. (New York: Penguin Books, 1982). Page 84.

7 Frederick Douglass. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. (New York: Penguin Books, 1982). Page 84.

8 Frederick Douglass. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. (New York: Penguin Books, 1982). Pages 81-82.

By accessing or using any part of this site, you agree to not download, copy, or otherwise plagiarize its contents in any way.

Salt Lake Community College

4600 South Redwood Road Salt Lake City, UT 84123
801-957-7522
Student Services hours: M - F : 7am -7pm
Enrollment Info: 801-957-4073 | contact@slcc.edu