*Note* I took a lot of this reflection about the reading from a paper that I wrote for the class regarding the emphasis of literacy and education on the African American population.
Douglass was one of the most influential African American abolitionists to escape the subjugation of slavery in1838. Though Douglass lived much of his life as an uneducated slave he was eventually able to master the skills of reading and writing after several years of tedious efforts. W.E.B. Du Bois estimated that only 5 percent of slaves became literate and mastered skills of trade such as blacksmithing and carpentry. Douglass is the quintessential example of an individual that used literacy and education in order to obtain liberation from enslavement.
In his memoir Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, Douglass emphasizes the mental cruelty of slavery and implies that keeping slaves in the dark educationally was in actuality a cruel physical mistreatment (Douglass 96). Predominately slaves did not learn to read and write because it was illegal for them to be taught and their masters did not want them attempting to communicate with anyone outside of the plantation (Douglass 96). In his memoir Douglass also noted that as African Americans learned how to read and write their status in the slave community often rose significantly.
Douglass was first exposed to reading when his mistress, Mrs. Auld taught him the ABCs as well as the ability to spell three or four letter words. He was quickly halted in his education by the plantation master who believed it was unsafe to teach a slave to read. Mr. Auld claimed that “a nigger should know nothing but to obey his master - to do as he is told to do,” and “if you teach a nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.” Mr. Auld like many slave owners recognized that literacy and liberation went hand in hand. The concept of oppressing African American’s by denying them educational benefits was one that was widely accepted in both the pre and post Civil War eras. Slave owners often thought that African Americans would become unmanageable and of no value to their masters if they obtained an education that lead them to have thoughts of freedom.
The un-encouraging sentiments regarding education expressed by Mr. Auld only motivated Douglass further towards his goal of learning to read and write. After moving to Baltimore, Maryland he successfully became literate, but his battle with racial adversity was far from over. In his narrative Douglass recounts that he often took books on errands with him and read in secrecy so not to be punished by his master or mistress . Eventually it was the reading of a book entitled The Columbian Orator that exposed Douglass to the dignity of human rights and made him detest his own situation of being enslaved. In a sense it was literacy that liberated him both physically and mentally.
In the case of Douglass literacy proved to be a tool that lead to his freedom from slavery and created a gateway for his involvement with the abolishnist movement. Douglass began making great progress for African Americans through the use of education when he started a night school for former slaves. The school was highly secretive and quickly rose in enrollment to a total of twenty men. Douglass knew that education was the key to leading African American’s to status as free individuals. While attempting to educate other slaves he visited Nashville and New Orleans and spoke to crowds preaching that thrift, morality, literacy and industrial education would act as a catalyst for the advancement of the African American race in society.
- I commented on Jeremy Barrick's entry for this reading. On his blog I asked do you think that Douglass believes that city slaves are free because some of them have had a prolonged exposure to education? After all he did express that he felt liberated after learning how to read and write. He climbed up the social ladder when he obtained this skill that carried a lot of power.
-I also commented on Rachel Prichard's blog entry for this reading. II commented that it is interesting that it was in fact reading that lead Douglass to draw the conclusions that his situation of enslavement was not a good one. Rather than be unchanged by this knowledge he used it to motivate himself and liberate his mind. His discovery of the word abolition was also a very moving passage of the reading. Imagine living in a time when you were denied basic human rights because of the color of you skin. And like you said it is still going on in some countries today.