Frederick Douglass and his Desire to be Free
Frederick Douglass sketches the stages on his road to literacy in the early chapters of his autobiography, Life and Times (1893). As a young slave, Frederick Douglass struggled with his place in the world.
Although slavery was a delicate subject, and very cautiously talked about among grown-up people in Maryland, I frequently talked about it, and that very freely, with the white boys. I would sometimes say to them, while seated on a curbstone or a cellar door, “I wish I could be free, as you will be when you get to be men.” “You will be free, you know, as soon as you are twenty-one, and can go where you like, but I am a slave for life. Have I not as good a right to be free as you have?” Words like these, I observed, always troubled them; and I had no small satisfaction in drawing out from them, as I occasionally did, that fresh and bitter condemnation of slavery which ever springs from natures unseared and unperverted. (FROM [CHAPTER XI.: GROWING IN KNOWLEDGE) - Frederick Douglass
As was the case with a few masters concerned about the spiritual welfare of their slaves, Sophia Auld began to teach Douglass his letters so that he could read the Bible for himself. This first stage ended abruptly when her husband informed her that teaching a slave to read was both unlawful and unsafe. Hugh Auld’s scathing commentary to his wife was the second stage of young Frederick’s journey to literacy, for it became the spur which drove him to continue through self-education the job begun by his mistress. According to Douglass, Auld told his wife, “If he learns to read the Bible it will forever unfit him to be a slave. He should know nothing but the will of his master, and learn to obey it.”
Douglass’s response to Auld’s diatribe illustrates the nature and importance of unintended consequences. He writes, “I instinctively assented to the proposition [that ‘knowledge unfits a child to be a slave’], and from that moment I understood the direct pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I needed, and it came to me at a time and from a source whence I least expected it.”
The final stage on the path to literacy, where Douglass himself completed the education begun by his owner, required the unwitting assistance of “my young white playmates, with whom I met on the streets.” In addition to their help with spelling, Douglass also engaged them in serious discussions such as the one recounted above. Although Maryland resisted a total ban on manumission, a policy pursued in many slave states, there was no legal mechanism by which slaves could achieve freedom without the voluntary action of their masters. In 1838, as a twenty-year-old, Douglass put his future in his own hands by escaping, with the help of false papers provided by a free Black sailor, from Maryland to Philadelphia.