Today, literacy is often taken for granted. Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave illuminates the importance of literacy, for those who have ever doubted its significance. Born a slave, Douglass’ narrative and life show just how freeing the capability of literacy is. In addition, Douglass’ narrative depicts the hardships of being a slave in America, as well as the resilience of the human spirit. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave shows Douglass’ efforts to become literate, demonstrating not only the significance of being literate, but also how freeing the ability of literacy is.
When Douglass’ lessons started first under the mistress’ instruction, the reader is able to clearly see just how harsh the relationship is between whites and blacks. As Douglass writes, “Nothing seemed to make her more angry than to see me with a newspaper. She seemed to think that here lay the danger” (39). As literacy was a capability reserved for the white, elite classes, it belonged solely to the whites. Because of this, whites were able to hold more power towards the blacks, like Douglass, thereby confining their abilities and learning.
Unlike other slaves and blacks, Douglass realized the power of literacy, and strove to become literate to gain that power. With a lack of literacy, blacks faced additional exclusion from the larger world. Similar to how a child’s life is in that they have not learned how to read, and therefore are restricted from understanding the world, as a result of being illiterate, blacks were barred from the ideas and understanding of the larger world. By being literate, it was not just an effect of being educated; rather, it was a method employed by the whites to show dominance over the slaves.
Douglass went to surprising lengths in his efforts to become literate. For example, he would meet with young white children, who would give him reading lessons. Douglass knew this activity was not allowed: “prudence forbids; -not that it would injure me, but it might embarrass them; for it is an almost unpardonable offense to teach slaves to read in this Christian country” (40). Douglass’ efforts to become literate reveal just how willing he is to learn, even at the risk of his own life. He is unable to seek help from other adult men, but must instead learn from children, children that are far more educated than he.
However, Douglass does not let this bruise his ego, as it would with other adult men who sought help from children. Rather, Douglass appreciates their help and gives them food for helping him. Douglass demonstrates his humble character in this way, although he is already quite lowly from being a slave his entire life. By Douglass seeking out additional help from children, children that are much more educated than himself, he shows his meek and resilient character in his journey to become literate.
Douglass also writes of the books he reads, and how they significantly influence his own beliefs. Douglass writes, “The reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery” (41). As Douglass continues to read and learn more, however, he comes to understand just how far the whites have gone to restrict he and other slaves’ lives, thereby debilitating them as illiterate servants. Douglass shows that when knowing too much, it can be powerful; however, it can also be quite painful.
Douglass writes further, saying that reading may be actually more of a curse than a blessing, as his eyes are now opened to the injustices of his life and all over slaves’ lives. This is analogous to what all children must experience as they mature and grow up. The world is not always a fun and kind place, as it so often is for children. The more children learn as they grow up, the more they must understand that both evil and good coexist in the world. Similarly to Douglass’ life and his journey to become literate, all maturing young adults must come to terms with the fact that, with more knowledge of the world, come more pain in understanding.
As Douglass realizes the power of literacy, he also realizes its firm connection to freedom. “It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy” (41). Douglass writes. Literacy and education, though both freeing entities, did not automatically lead to the freedom for slaves. Education aids the slaves in articulating their injustices to the larger world; however, freedom does not come immediately, and when Douglass learns this he suffers greatly.
In conclusion, Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave describes his efforts to become literate. This reveals not only the significance of literacy, but also the power and freedom that comes with literacy. From Douglass’ autobiography, the reader is reminded just how essential literacy is, and also how resilient humans can be in the face of adversity.