The years of slavery as we all may know, were tough times for African American individuals. The hardships that they endured, physically, mentally and emotionally, can be seen as unimaginable by some of us and can leave us wondering how some of these people made it out alive. During that time, author Frederick Douglas, became a prevalent voice for slaves everywhere. Presenting the truth behind what he endured as a slave and what many other slaves can see as relatable as well.
Amongst all truths he was making relevant a the time, Frederick Douglas’ idea of knowledge and education being the unseen path to freedom for slaves, does in fact present itself as a tool of freedom into his own life. As an African-American slave who worked in the United States during the 1800s, work was the only task that was given. Their whole lives revolved around the idea of work. This time period was filled with pain and suffering, where slaves had to work every day, and lived in fear of receiving punishments, or face the worse case scenario, death.
Freedom and equality were highly restricted for African Americans, especially in the south where rules and regulations were strictly established to prevent any incentive for slaves. There were other ways to acquire freedom, and education was one of them. For a nation that possessed a powerful workforce, slavery played a key role in the South’s profit structure. The idea of providing education for slaves was highly immoral and a controversial idea for the white slave-owners, because without slaves, their revenues would shrink dramatically, and eventually, antislavery would occur.
Education leads to freethinking, and that in turn can lead to revolts, and the fear was that this could lead to a collapse in the economy. Despite many attempts to prevent little or no education for slaves throughout the South, it was inevitable that education played a major role in the abolition of slavery, and men like Frederick Douglass, used his insufficient, minute education to emerge from a slave to a free man. At the beginning of the text, Douglass emphasizes that slaves were viewed as a group of cattle that lacked any sign of intelligence, and were isolated within plantations.
The unknown was what they questioned every single day and in this case, Douglass never knew his own age or his father’s name. He wrote that “a want of information concerning my [age] was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege” (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, pg. 395). The readers can tell that Douglass was envious and jealous that certain people had the privilege to know the unknown and this was basically the start of his educational journey and freedom.
Slaves seen as witless and stupid were stereotypical ideas, however false. With the proper education that can be given to slaves, they can become just as smart as those who scoffed them since the inception. This motivated Douglass to become active in education and hoped this will hand him the key to his future. One education that Douglass received was that he was taught the ABCs from Sophia Auld, the wife of a slaveholder. Understanding that the life of a slave was closely monitored and was restricted to many things, Douglass knew that any slave caught of any wrongdoing, was to be severely punished.
The stench of fear and death roaming across the plantation has turned slaves into a broken and fragmented race, for they have accepted that work and death was to be their way of life. However, in Douglass’ case, he was fortunate and lucky enough that his treatment was different when he lived with the Auld family. Up until this moment, Douglass’ life was filled with misery, despair, and pain when he was separated from his mother, saw his aunt suffer at the hands of a white man’s whip, lived in poor living conditions, and wept that there was no justice in this world.
Fortunately for Douglass, his life with the Auld family was the first stage to his freedom. Douglass described his mistress as “a woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings” (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, pg. 409), although strange according to him. “She very kindly commenced to teach me the ABCs [and] assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. ” Sophia treated Douglass as an equal and saw the hypocrisy and the inhumanity of slavery. Unfortunately, these lessons did not last long, for Sophia Auld’s husband discovered Sophia’s intentions. If you teach that [slave] how to read, he would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. It would make him discontented and unhappy,” said Mr. Auld (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, pg. 409).
It almost sounds as if Mr. Auld was protecting Douglass from repercussions either from the other slaves or other slave-owners. But what really surprised Douglass were Mrs. Auld’s transformation and her change of heart, which told Douglass that she was a victim of slavery just as he was. It was from this experience that taught Douglass that his education should not stop here, for this act of defiance made him discover his true passion for education, which in turn has achieved the first step towards freedom. Despite that the lessons have been put to an end, Douglass continued to improve his skills by enlisting the help “of all the little white boys whom [he] met in the street” and fed them bread in exchange for reading lessons, which played another role in Douglass’ struggle to freedom. Douglass continued to express his passion and enthusiasm for learning even though this would get him punished.
He didn’t care; he just wanted to be treated as an equal in the eyes of the white race. If not for Douglass’ education, he never would have read “The Columbian Orator”, where he discovered a philosophical dialogue between master and slave, where eventually, the slave was set free. Also, he discovered a speech where it discussed Irish emancipation and human rights. Slaves fighting for their freedom were no different than the Irish fighting for theirs, for both groups were trying to achieve the same goal. Having read this speech, the struggle of slavery helped Douglass articulate his true feelings. The moral which I gained from the dialogue was the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder” (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, pg. 412). It was this moment where he discovered the term “abolition”, meant “antislavery”, and the idea of escape came into mind. With time and patience, Douglass eventually accomplished a feat that no slave could have done in the South. Douglass continued to enhance his skills with reading and writing as he got older, and engaged himself in activities that helped improve his education. He continued to interact with the local boys until he had to move to a different plantation.
While sailing south, Douglass “paid particular attention to the direction which the steamboats took to go to Philadelphia” (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, pg. 417). Freedom sailed right by him and this made him realize that freedom was to be taken at first sight. He resolved to escape again at the earliest opportunity and refused to let it slip away. Education was his life at this point, and as his mind grew, so did his thirst for escape. Before this event, Douglass had dedicated his life in the South educating other slaves because he believed that all men are equal, no matter what the slave-owners said. The work of instructing my dear fellow slaves was the sweetest engagement with which I was ever blessed” (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, pg. 431). Douglass felt blessed teaching his fellow brethren reading and writing, and hoped that education can help set them free also. The idea of independence came from the teachings of education, and if Douglass did not have the interest for education, he never would have escaped and slavery would become his life. Douglass continued to contribute his life to antislavery and sought education once he has escaped from the bonds of slavery and sought his freedom in the North.
After settling down, Douglass managed to work for pay without the harsh incentive of a whip held by his former white masters. He then discovered “the Liberator”, where it discussed the evils of slavery and it must be abolished. It seems that his education helped achieve change into this world by sharing his testimony, which in turn, created more movements for antislavery. He taught that African-Americans must not be seen as slaves, but as an equal to whites and must receive fair treatment.
The purpose of the education that Douglass received during his time in slavery, was to apply it to others, teach them about the negative effects of slavery, how it is a sin, which in turn created a spark for change within the next few years. African-Americans were the only race that made up the slave population in the United States. They basically had no freedom, no rights, and were not considered to be as equal as others. The life of a slave was highly monitored and restricted to any kind of freedom. Education was one example that represented freedom, because this leads to freethinking, and would lead to revolts across the South.
Not many slaves had the luxury of receiving an education, let alone few. Douglass was very fortunate to receive a full education in a region that forbade this, knowing that he could get punished or worse, be executed. Douglass’ passion for learning helped him survive through most of the horrible times that he had to endure, and in the end that reward paid off. They say that the pen is mightier than the sword, and by writing his own Narrative, he hoped that this would be the ultimate weapon in fighting against the immorality of black enslavement.
This act of defiance made Douglass a well-known celebrity during this time, and it was rare to find a slave that could have accomplished just as much as he did. His passion for education and his enthusiasm is contagious, which is why we still honor his memory even to this day. Despite Douglass’ minimal education, he managed to amplify his passion for education, emerged from a slave to a free man, and in turn, made him a major voice in educating others against the evils of slavery.