When learning to read is a curse

Mrs Auld teaches Frederick Douglass

Believe it or not, acts had been passed in the Southern States forbidding any person to teach a slave to read.[i] But at about the age of twelve Frederick Douglass moved to a new owner and the owner’s young wife, a Mrs Auld, was unaware of this. When her husband discovered what she had been doing, he forbade her to continue, forcefully arguing that by reading and learning the slave would become discontented and yearn for freedom. A door had been opened. ‘What he most dreaded, that I most desired,’ wrote Douglass. From that time on, secretly and cleverly, Douglass learnt how to read from the white children he met doing errands.

Learning to read – a curse
‘The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery. I loathed them as being the meanest as well as the most wicked of men. As I read and contemplated the subject, behold! that very discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish. As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity.’[ii]

A good Irishman
‘The light broke in upon me by degrees. I went one day down on the wharf of Mr. Waters; and seeing two Irishmen unloading a scow of stone, I went, unasked, and helped them. When we had finished, one of them came to me and asked me if I were a slave. I told him I was. He asked, “Are ye a slave for life?” I told him that I was. The good Irishman seemed to be deeply affected by the statement. He said to the other that it was a pity so fine a little fellow as myself should be a slave for life. He said it was a shame to hold me. They both advised me to run away to the north; that I should find friends there, and that I should be free. I pretended not to be interested in what they said, and treated them as if I did not understand them; for I feared they might be treacherous. White men have been known to encourage slaves to escape, and then, to get the reward, catch them and return them to their masters. I was afraid that these seemingly good men might use me so; but I nevertheless remembered their advice, and from that time I resolved to run away.’[iii] 25

To read the next post, how Frederick and his fellow-slaves were ‘valued’ along with cattle click here
For the first part in this series on Frederick Douglass click here

[i] See https://www.thirteen.org/wnet/slavery/experience/education/docs1.html and http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/slaveprohibit.html
[ii]Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1845, p.24 (Dover Thrift Edition, 1995)
[iii] ibid p.25

©2018 Lex Loizides / Church History Review

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