Frederick Douglass: Education as Key to Freedom

Although the phrase “knowledge is power” may be seen as trite, it has always been and continues to be true. Even today, one can see the influence and importance that education has. In essence, it can be said that education is the key to bettering oneself as it opens doors and offers numerous opportunities. A text in which one can see this idea in play is the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. This firsthand account offers the reader a specific example in which an individual rose from a slave having nothing to a free man via the help of his education. By reading through this narration and its sequence of events, one can see how Douglass’s initial thirst for freedom stemmed from a thirst for knowledge which eventually provided him with the strength necessary to escape from his enslavement.

Douglass’s narrative begins instantly be describing his frustration as a child as being unable to know something as simple as his own birthday. As Douglass explains, his lack for this type of seemingly basic, personal information “was a source of great unhappiness to me even during childhood” as he struggled to figure out why all the white children knew their ages and why he should be “deprived of the same privilege” (Douglass 1182). Douglass’s thirst for knowledge then is intensified when his mistress offers him his first real chance to learn and begins teaching him the ABCs. Unfortunately, these lessons were soon prohibited by her husband, Mr. Auld, who claimed that “learning would spoil the best nigger in world…It [learning to read] would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it would do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy” (1196). Unfortunately for Mr. Auld, although these statements did put a stop to the lessons, they also drastically augmented Douglass’s desire to continue with his learning as he then saw the connection between his learning and a chance for freedom. Here, Douglass has a revelation that “called into existence an entirely new train of thought…from that moment, I [Douglass] understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (1197). Simply by observing the adamancy with which Mr. Auld voiced these concerns against his learning to read, Douglass became certain that learning to read was essential. This idea was then further strengthened by the actions of Mr. Auld’s wife. According to Douglass, her greatest fear seemed to be finding him with a newspaper and she watched him very closely to ensure he never had a book in hand. According to Douglass, “she [his mistress] seemed to think that here lay the danger” and her careful prohibition and anger at finding Douglass with a book “fully revealed her apprehension” (1198). Because of this, Douglass became even more sure that his education would be the key to his freedom as it seemed to be the thing feared most by his owners.

Although Douglass was no longer having formal instruction of any sort, he remained determined to learn to read and used any method he could to do so. Eventually, with the help of the poor white children (with whom he would exchange bread for knowledge) he succeeded in learning to read. Around this time, Douglass came in contact with “The Columbian Orator,” which, thanks to his ability to read, transitioned his thirst for learning into a thirst for freedom. In this book, which contained numerous anti-slavery arguments, Douglass found himself able to finally voice and argue the thoughts that had been dwelling in his mind about the injustice of his personal situation and slavery itself. Unfortunately, although this new knowledge and comprehension “relieved [Douglass] of one difficulty, they brought on another even more painful than the one of which [he] was relieved” as he grew to “abhor and detest [his] enslavers” (1199). With this experience, Douglass learned that with knowledge comes truth and, as his own truth being that of a “wretched condition,” he sometimes considered learning to read a curse rather than a blessing (1200). In the end, although it made Douglass’s daily struggles more difficult at the time, these new ideas and passions instilled in him a notion that he wasn’t likely to forget and was convinced to achieve: freedom.

However, Douglass realized that at that very moment freedom was not yet possible. Therefore, he continued working to achieve what he considered the next best thing: an education. At this point in his life, a passion for education was all Douglass had and he wished to pass it on to his fellow slaves. Therefore, he began something of a clandestine Sabbath school. Although all of his “scholars” were risking horrible punishment, Douglass said they “came because they wished to learn” as “their minds had been starved by their cruel masters” (1219). In this way, Douglass was working to instill in his fellow slaves the same passion for learning (and therefore hopefully for freedom) that he had. According to Douglass, his school served as an inspiration for several of his fellow slaves as he explains that “I [Douglass] had the happiness to know, that several of those slaves who came to Sabbath school learned how to read; and that one, at least, is now free through my agency” (1219). From here, the Sabbath school and observation of the other slaves wanting to learn offered Douglass the last bit of strength and determination that he needed to escape in which, persevering despite one failed attempt, he finally succeeded.

Douglass’s long, difficult path to freedom began with his passion for knowledge. From this passion and much hard work, Douglass succeeded in learning to read and established his education as the link to his freedom. During the many years that passed before Douglass could plan an escape, he maintained his desire for knowledge and worked to impart it upon his fellow slaves. This everlasting desire then offered Douglass the final impetus he needed to plan and enact his escape. Throughout these events, it became clear that once Douglass was freed from his mental bondage he would not rest until he achieved freedom from his physical bondage as well. In this way, it also becomes clear that Douglass would no doubt agree with the introductory quote and willingly and ardently claim that “knowledge is power.”

Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written

by Himself.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Julia Reidhead. Vol. A.

New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012. 1174-1235. Print.

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