Our weekly reading of Frederick Douglas’s autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas illustrated the story of not only a progressive thinker but also an individual providing true insight into the institution of slavery in an environment that violently discouraged enlightenment of the oppressive tools slave owners used, from a first person perspective.
Born into slavery, Douglas worked on farms near the eastern shore of Maryland and Baltimore throughout his youth. Being in Baltimore, Douglas enjoyed more freedoms than many slaves of the south did. This is where Douglas began to learn to read and made contact with many educated free blacks. This fueled Douglas’s passion to be free and he escaped his owners and fled north to New York at the age of twenty. It is important to note that Frederick Bailey as Douglas’s true name but he changed it to Douglas to avoid detection. Upon moving north Douglas focuses hard on earning money through laboring and continued to educate himself as much as possible. After marrying Anna Murray, a free woman he met while in Baltimore, together they move to Massachusetts. Douglas becomes involved in the abolitionist movement often detailing his experience as first hand evidence of the evil slavery brings to all parties involved.
Analyzing Douglas’s account of his life one can begin to see the deeper ideals that Douglas has about the institution of slavery. It is important to note that at this time in history these ideals concerning the institution of slavery and its operation had not been written about especially by any African Americans. The most prominent ideal Douglas highlights is the use of ignorance as a means to oppress slaves and keep them docile as property of the system. If slaves are kept ignorant of what freedoms exist for others and alternative ways of life for blacks, they will not revolt and try to escape. The common practice of withholding basic birth information such as birthdate and paternity worked to rob the slaves of personal identity and family history. Keeping the slaves illiterate and ignorant of their personal history worked to deter the revolt of slaves.
Douglas first becomes enlightened to this ideal when owned by Hugh Auld. Auld’s wife attempts to teach Douglas how to read but is stopped by Auld and he forbids her to educate Douglas reasoning that education ruins slaves. Through deep thought Douglas discovers that the reason he is not allowed to be educated is because the deprivation of knowledge serves as a tool to keep blacks oppressed and controlled by the institution of slavery.
After his first hand discovery of slaveholder tactics, Douglas begins to recognize literacy and education as the righteous path to freedom and enlightenment. With the goal of literacy, Douglas, recognizes his own education as his primary chance to obtain true freedom from the institution of slavery. Though, he recognizes that education does not simply entitle slaves to freedom or truly provide a roadmap to achieving freedom it does provide a deep desire to be free and to recognize one’s self a person not simply a possession. This is a very important observation and a strong message to bring to progressive thinkers. By providing understanding to the institution of slavery and all aspects of its existence Douglas’s story provides a deeper argument against slavery and acts as irrefutable evidence of the competence of slaves who act to reach their full potential. This gave birth to the argument that given freedom from oppression African American’s could truly function on a much higher level than they were being allowed during the time.