Fredrick Douglas and Harriet Jacobs

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During the 1800s, slaves received treatment comparable to that of livestock. They were mere possessions of white men stripped of almost every last bit of humanity in them. African-Americans were constricted to this state of mind by their owners vicious treatment, but also the practice of keeping them uneducated. Keeping the slaves illiterate hindered them from understanding the world around them. Slave owners knew this. The slaves who were able to read and write always rebelled more against their masters. Frederick Douglass, author of "A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass," and Harriet Jacobs, author of "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," were prime examples. Both slaves had been taught how read and write at a young age, and both gained their freedom by escaping to the northern states. What they had learned also helped them stay free while in the northern states after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 which left no slave truly free. The literate slaves thought with a more free mind and developed a sense of self-identity and denied the identity of a slave. Literate slaves caught on to the immorality and injustice of slavery on black people. Another problem slave owners had with literate slaves was the potential for them to educate other slaves and give them thoughts of escaping or helping other slaves escape. Frederick Douglas and Harriet Jacobs both wrote of this in their books.

Douglass was separated from his mother at an early age in order to prevent any feelings of attachment to her. His father was a white man, he might have been the man responsible for separating him from his mother. As a young child on the plantation, Douglass was exposed to the abuse of slave women received from their masters. This began the shaping of Douglass' mind against the institution. Around age seven or eight, Douglass was sent to Baltimore to be a servant for his original master's son-in-law's brother, Hugh Auld. Douglass' cousin told him the city was beautiful and Douglass knew it couldn't be any worse than the plantation. When Douglass meets his new owners, he described Hugh Auld's wife, Sophia Auld, as having a kindly face. Douglass learned what might have been one of his biggest lessons as a slave from these overseers. Sophia, the wife of Hugh Auld, had never owned a slave before, therefore she treated him almost as if he were a child of hers. She taught him the alphabet and some other minor words before Hugh took notice of what she was doing. Mr. Auld told his wife "…it is unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read." (Douglass, p.78) Hugh goes on to say "A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master… 'if you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever make him unfit to be a slave.'" (Douglass, p.78) Douglass overheard every word that hissed out of Hugh Auld's mouth. Sophia Auld had been lessoned in the ways of slave managing now. She discontinued her teaching to Frederick and began to treat him as the property they considered him to be. Douglass' mind frame changed completely after hearing Auld's words. He realized that education was the key in order to obtain his freedom, "…to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man." (Douglass, p.78) Douglass continued to pursue his education on his own. He would trade bread to the poor white boys around the neighborhood for reading lessons, and he would use the Thomas Auld's old school books to learn how to write. This piece of knowledge was a major stepping stone in his life. He knew slavery was not right, and now he knew how the white man kept power over slaves by depriving them of an education.

With Frederick's new found knowledge, also came unhappiness and discontent that only grew as the more he began to understand slavery. At the age of twelve, Douglass came across a book, "The Columbian Orator," by a Catholic Irishman by the last name of Sheridan. In reading this book, he found a...
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