Ignorance Is Bliss: Fredrick Douglass’ Search for Freedom through Knowledge
In the Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself Douglass writes about his life as a slave and his effort to educate both white and black men, about the nature of slavery, and its inherent injustice. Throughout his text, Douglass places a very high value on knowledge and education. It becomes obvious to the reader that very early on in his life knowledge and education become somewhat of a symbol to him; a symbol of power and freedom. This principle is seen throughout the novel, both during his enslavement as well as after his escape from slavery. Ultimately, it is Douglass’ continual pursuit of knowledge that leads to his liberation from slavery.
Douglass’ text begins with him sharing his lack of knowledge about his birth. Douglass’ mother would not reveal the name of his father, and his birth date was a mystery that weighed him down, as was kept a mystery to most slaves. He writes that “A want of information concerning my own [age] was a source of unhappiness of 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” (Douglass 12). Whites purposefully imposed this lack of knowledge upon slave children as another way to keep them ignorant and submissive. Douglass was never willing to coincide with these expectations of ignorance held by his slave owners.
One of Douglass’ mistresses while he was enslaved was a kind white woman, Ms. Auld. During the time he spent living with her and her husband, he “learned the importance of knowledge – that it was the pathway to freedom” through her and her husband. Mrs. Auld began to teach Douglass his ABC’s and how to write a few short words, that is until her husband found out about it. Mr. Auld was livid when he caught her beginning to educate a young slave boy. He informed her that “‘[l]earning would spoil the best nigger in the world . . . if you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master’” (Douglass 29). This speech demonstrates that the white man acknowledges the power of education, and the direct efforts to keep the black man uneducated and therefore weak—somewhat animalistic. This speech poses as a turning point in Douglass’ life.
The ideals that Mr. Auld preached as being the “evils of education” for African American slaves were the exact things that Douglass desired for himself. He wanted to be ‘unkeepable,’ and unfit for slavery. He states that “From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (Douglass 29). Education became his main goal, his stepping-stone to becoming a free man.
It seems that the very thing that Mr. Auld feared would become of an educated slave did become of Douglass. The knowledge that he gained through reading made him even more displeasured with his own situation in life. As a result of this, he began to formulate ideas of escaping to the north, where he would be able to live as a free man.
Even after Douglass achieves his freedom, he still sees education as a foundation of power and enlightenment. The various speeches that Douglass made in his lifetime and his many writings all attempt to educate people about the negatives of slavery; he seeks to show them the ill effects that this institution has had on African Americans, as well as on white people. It seems that in writing his narrative, Douglass is taking back some of the power that his white masters stole from him over the years; he is engaging in a role-reversal of sorts. He is using the education that he gained in secret, against the will of his masters, to educate others and assert his own power over the white man.
Douglass’ Narrative shows how Douglass’ desire for knowledge became the agent which eventually led him to his freedom from slavery. Even after he has escaped from the hold of his former white masters, he still focuses his life around education and the task of educating others about the harsh realities of slavery. Douglass has become a hero among African Americans, a man who possessed not only the intelligence required to recognize the injustice of slavery and reveal it to others, but also the courage to fight against society, thereby making life a little easier for those who would later follow in his footsteps.