Douglass, Frederick. "Learning to Read." In Austin, Michael, Reading the
World: Ideas That Matter, 2nd Edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. Pp 46-52. Print.
The early to mid-19th century in the United States was plagued with an ever expanding system of slave labor, particularly in the American South. So entrenched was this peculiar institution that it stained the fabric of the Constitution, which was burned & decried as a slaveholder's document by some such as William Lloyd Garrison. A racially based system, millions of African Americans were born into chattel bondage. Many of these men, women, and children were entirely uneducated in any formal manner -- a majority had little to no literacy skills. Indeed, with the politics of race being a volatile, fiery issue in American society, laws were adopted which denied the right of education to the slave.
It was into this inhumane condition, near Baltimore, Maryland, that Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was born. Propelled to international note by his 1845 autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, of which Learning to Read is the 7th chapter, Douglass would in time grow to become one of the nation's foremost influential figures. A Garrisonian abolitionist, Douglass employed the fame he attained to combat racial prejudice and advocate for policies of national emancipation. Though hyper-literate and possessing an extraordinary intellect in his adult life, Douglass too began his early boyhood years as an illiterate. Learning to Read is his narrative account of how he came to know the intertwined worlds of education and freedom.
Slavery, according to Douglass, has a brutally corrosive effect on the hearts and minds of both the master and the bondsman. He makes this clear through the story of Mrs. Auld, his mistress. Auld initially set about teaching a young Douglass to read, showing him kindness and compassion while viewing him as a human rather than a beast or property. Her demeanor began to shift when her husband, Douglass's master, began to reprimand her for such unlawful lessons. Not only did Mrs. Auld cease her lessons for Douglass, she grew increasingly hostile to his education even beyond the hostility of her husband, angrily snatching newspapers from his hands. Douglass looked on as this once gentle woman grew cold and as her heart hardened. Nonetheless, she had sown the seed of knowledge and Douglass was not to be deterred in his pursuit of literacy. He took books with him on errands, finishing his duties quickly so as to have time to absorb as much as he could from the writings. Explaining that he was always welcome to the family's bread, Douglass would also trade food for lessons from poor white children in the streets.
"Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness." - Frederick Douglass, Learning to Read (1845).
A book of particular significance to Douglass was the Columbian Orator, a collection of various speeches and orations. It was in this book that Douglass first learned of the plight of the slave -- of the terrible injustice being done to him and those around him, and of the arguments against slavery. One section detailed an exchange between an escaped slave and his master, who was so moved by the slave's arguments for his own emancipation that the he freed him voluntarily. It was through this that Douglass began to link education and freedom. Yet this knowledge of his own state brought a heavy burden upon him -- he notes that oftentimes he wished himself as ignorant as the others, and speculates he might have killed himself or done something to get killed except for his aspirations to freedom. He also notes his confusion as to meaning of the word, "Abolitionist" -- a term used derisively in much of the antebellum South, and the meaning of which he later learned from a newspaper.
Having succeeded in learning to read, the task remaining was learning to write. He achieved this through a variety of means. At a shipyard, Douglass noticed that timbers would be marked with such letters as, "L", "A", "LA", "LF", etc. depending on what part of the ship they were intended for. Copying these letters, Douglass would then challenge white children to spelling matches by claiming he could write as well as them. The boys would, of course, win this game but inadvertently gave Douglass spelling lessons. At home, when the family was away, Douglass would use the old school copybooks of young Thomas Auld, rewriting in the margins what Thomas had written in school. Through these efforts, Douglass would come to learn to both read and write -- and inevitably escape to freedom with his new-found abilities.
- Austin R. Justice is RCRC Chair and a tenured contributor specializing in classics, the American Civil War Era, and Lincoln studies.
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