The Power and Paradox of Literacy

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A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
The Power and Paradox of Literacy
The “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” has been regarded by many as one of the most influential slave narratives in American history. This colorful autobiography has and will forever situate Douglass at the forefront of the American abolitionist movement. Many scholars involved in the study of African American history, including James Matlack, a writer for the Atlanta Review of Race and Culture assert that the effectiveness of Douglass’s narrative rests upon his superior technique in sharing his experience and elating them to the general American population (Matlack 15). In this short narrative Douglass wonderfully exploits several themes that soon become the foundation to his anti-slavery ideology.

One of the most important themes Douglass creates within his narrative is the power that literacy and education have upon fellow African American slaves yearning for liberation. Uniquely however, as Douglass recognizes that this pathway to freedom depends upon ones ability to learn and acquire knowledge through literacy, it becomes a theme with paradoxical meaning. It becomes apparent to Douglass that as a result of his ability to read and to write, he now more fully understands the true disparities and atrocities of slavery. Douglass states, “It [literacy] has opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but offered no ladder upon which to get out” (Douglass 68). This paradoxical element regarding literacy and freedom creates an interesting psychological exploration of Douglass’s life, along with the lives of other African Americans who struggled to obtain their freedom from the oppressive bands of slavery.

Throughout his autobiography, Douglass often lapses into assertions that the condition of slavery and literacy are incompatible for slaves. Throughout the text, Douglass points out these inconsistencies as he constantly wavers between his intense desire to become more educated through achieving literacy, and wanting to give up hope entirely. For Douglass, finally being able to read and understand more fully the implications of slavery, at times, served to make him more miserable as he came to comprehend the hopelessness of the situation for himself and other slaves. To make matters more complex, acquiring his literacy was a constant battle since he had to remain secretive since it was “unlawful and unsafe to teach a slave to read” (Douglass 63). With the sense that the world was against him in his pursuit to learn, Douglass seemed to suffer extraordinarily as a result of the advancement of his education and literacy.

In Chapter six of Douglass's autobiography, the scene opens with a display of literary instruction as the young Douglass begins his quest for literacy and education through the instruction of his mistress Sophia Auld. As Ms. Auld proceeds with her instruction, her husband Mr. Auld abruptly interrupts her. Mr. Auld warns his wife that it is “unlawful as well as unsafe to teach a slave to read.” He is later quoted in saying that, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master--to do as he is told to do” (Douglass 63).

Auld's passionate efforts to deny access to literacy provide Douglass with a profound insight as to literacy's power in the eyes of his slave master. Although this scene of instruction is cut short, its effects live on in the mind and heart of Douglass; he has seen enough to understand that the source of the white mans power stems from his inability to read. Douglas understood from that moment on, the pathway to freedom was through literacy.

But while Douglass's words seem to provide clear evidence of this tradition of linking literacy with freedom in slave narratives, it is important to remember that these are supposedly the thoughts of a pre-literate slave as represented by a highly literate ex-slave. In contrast to the thesis of this essay,...
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