During the 1800’s, the institution of slavery was still ongoing in the few slave states left in America. Slavery was still proving to be unjust and unfair, not allowing for African Americans to be considered equals. However, some slaves were able to overcome the many restrictions and boundaries that slavery forced upon them. In Frederick Douglass’ essay “Learning to Read and Write,” Douglass portrays himself as an intelligent and dignified slave who’s able to overcome the racial boundaries placed upon him.
Frederick Douglass saw that his only pathway to freedom was through literacy, so his goal was to learn how to read and write no matter the circumstances. Douglass realized becoming a literate slave was considered as having too much power because it made him aware of unjust circumstances of slavery. For a slave to become literate wasn’t tolerated. If a slaves knew how to read and write, it would make them unfit for being slaves. At the age of twelve, Frederick Douglass manipulates his circumstances caused by slavery and uses various stratagems to learn how to read and write.
Eager to learn, Douglass manipulated his circumstances under slavery to become literate. At first, Master Hugh’s wife had started tutoring Douglass, teaching him the alphabet. These lessons continued until she was further instructed by her husband not to do so. He believed that if slaves could read and write they would no longer obey him without question or thought. Due to this belief, tutoring ended abruptly. Masters Hugh’s wife carried out her husband’s commands, but she also tried to prevent Douglass from becoming educated by anyone else either.
However, Douglass was able to obtain newspapers and or various books to further his education. The mistress and her husband demonstrated with their actions and beliefs during this time, that slavery and education were incompatible. However, Douglass had already taken the first step in his eager pursuit to literacy. Douglass’ quest for literacy led him to use various stratagems in order to learn how to read. Douglass had already gained command of the alphabet, so he devised a plan to become friends with poor white children whom he met on errands and to use them as teachers.
He paid for his reading lessons with pieces of bread. By meeting at various times and places, he had finally succeeded in learning to read. With the little money he had earned doing errands, he bought a copy of The Columbian Orator (The common text for schools in New England at the time). Douglass was particularly interested in a dialogue in The Columbian Orator, one pertaining to a slave being emancipated after trying to escape for the third time. The dialogue consisted of a conversation between the master and the slave.
The slave had proven he was intelligent with the smart and impressive replies to the master in the dialogue, thus leading to the emancipation of the slave on behalf of the master. Douglass learned the morality of the power of truth over conscience in the dialogue, which made him envious. The more Frederick Douglass learned, the more slavery became a burden. Douglass had become more aware of the unjustness of slavery and the social forces placed upon his people because of it. Knowingly, Douglass was determined to overcome these social forces and become a freed slave.
Becoming more aware of his situation in society, Douglass felt wretched by his condition and sought to learn to write in order to better it. After he realized the strongholds and stipulations held upon him, Douglass sought to hear anything he can about slavery. Douglass became fascinated with the word abolition, and not knowing what it meant bothered him. Douglass, eager to find the meaning of the word, picked up a newspaper containing an account of petitions for the abolition of slavery and slave trade. It was not long before Frederick realized what the word now meant.
Young Douglass was enlightened with new ideas that both tormented and inspired him. He soon began to detest slavery, and he knew that writing was the final step to fulfill his plight to become literate. So Douglass traveled to Mr. Water’s Wharf where he met two Irishmen who felt sorry for him being a slave and advised him to run away. However, Douglass believed that if he learned to write he could possible write his own ticket out of slavery. With this new found idea, he traveled to Durgin and Bailey’s ship-yard where he learned to write by using abbreviations.
Different abbreviations stood for various areas on the ship where the timber was to be placed. He soon learned the names of the abbreviated letters and challenged the boys who had taught him to read, in writing contests. This method, along with his rigorous copying of words from various copy-books and Webster’s Spelling Book, allowed Douglass to finally become a literate black male in America. Frederick Douglass was able to overcome the social boundaries and conflicts that slavery forced upon him in his quest for literacy.
Although his journey was hard and against all odds, Douglass knew that his only escape from the narrow-minded world of slavery was to be able to become educated. With his literacy came power and his ability to write his own ticket. Frederick Douglass’ aspiration for a becoming an equal citizen in America was astounding. He overcame the stipulations and restrictions that slavery forced upon him. When he wanted to give up all hope, his search for freedom and wellbeing was his motivation.