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Frederick Douglass' Use of Literacy

This study will examine the ways in which Frederick Douglass used education and literacy to gain and express his freedom in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. The opening pages of Douglass' autobiography include no sign of freedom. Slaves have their freedom stripped from them by the horrors of slavery, and slaveowners commit those horrors. An essential part of being a free human being, for Douglass, involves education, literacy and self-awareness. The slave with no education, no awareness of his or her position, no ability to read the thoughts of others, and no hope for the future is not fully a human being. The slaveholders kept the slaves uneducated because that made controlling them easier. Literate and free-thinking individuals are harder to control than a group of frightened illiterates whose only reality is that imposed by the slaveholders.

The beginning of Douglass' verbal education is not in books but in slave songs, songs which Douglass says "breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish . . . To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery" (58). The awareness that slavery is an abomination against God and humanity obviously leads to Douglass' awareness of his own terrible circumstances. At that point, Douglass feels the longing for freedom, although his desire is still limited by his powerlessness.

This powerlessness was the key to the continuing success of slavery. Even one educated slave was a threat to most slaveholders, because a literate, educated slave was a slave who was able to think for himself or herself. Thinking for oneself leads to having one's own thoughts separate from the slaveholder, a fact terrifying to those slaveholders: "If one slave refused to be corrected," other slaves would disobey and "the result would be the freedom of the slaves, and the enslavement of the w...

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Frederick Douglass' Use of Literacy. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 17:13, February 22, 2017, from