Essay on Learning to Read and Write by Frederick Douglas

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Knowledge is freedom, and ignorance is slavery. From the autobiography of Miles Davis. To be truly free is not just having your freedom, but is having the ability to learn and know more.

The narrative, explains how white slaveholders maintained their slaves by keeping them ignorant and how it was a federal offense to teach a slave to read and/or write. “I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday.” (Douglass, p. 1) The entire time, Douglass and his fellow slaves thought it was natural to be slaves. As they grew up, their masters kept them from learning to read because this ability would give them self-empowerment. “Massa” knew that an intelligent slave was a questionable slave, and was truly afraid of the effects of one. Since slaves could not read or write, it was almost impossible for them to tell their stories. Because slaves couldn't tell their stories, no one truly cared.

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However, slave women and men needed knowledge and had no way of getting it. It is necessary to gain their freedom. Douglass learned this during his time with the Auld’s. When Mr. Auld caught Mrs. Auld teaching him to read, he told her that, “if you give a mouse a cookie, then it will seek more and more.” In other words, giving a slave intelligence would ruin the way of the plantation. “If you give a n****r an inch, he will take an ell. A n****r should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best n****r in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that n****r (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.” (Mr. Auld, p. 29) Even though Douglass was forbidden to learn, he took it upon himself to continue to do so. Through this way, he can gain his “freedom.”

Knowledge helps slaves realize that they are just as human as the white overseers. Once they realize the truth about everything, they will take power for themselves, which will further bring greatness to the lives of many. When oppressed people learn of the real in life, they will want to change it. Douglass has also dedicated himself to educating fellow slaves because he sees it as a way to stop everything. His intelligence proves that slaves are human as well as everyone else and have capabilities, besides picking cotton, making beds, cooking, etc.

Not just affecting slaves, but even the slaveholders themselves. The way they treated slaves has put many a temptation on them. Many white men would rape female slaves, and their wives would feel jealous. The adultery threatens slave owner families. Thomas Auld, for example, committed such “sins(one could call them)” that he became unknown when he was doing them. The book continues to share examples such as Sophia Auld, and many others. Douglass knows for a fact that slavery should be deemed illegal, not just for the sake of slaves, but for the sake of all living.

From knowledge being the key to power, aka. Freedom, to having effects on slaves and slaveholders. Life today would never be the same without the events of the past.

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Essay on Learning to Read and Write by Frederick Douglas. (2024, February 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 15, 2024, from
“Essay on Learning to Read and Write by Frederick Douglas.” Edubirdie, 29 Feb. 2024,
Essay on Learning to Read and Write by Frederick Douglas. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 15 Jul. 2024].
Essay on Learning to Read and Write by Frederick Douglas [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2024 Feb 29 [cited 2024 Jul 15]. Available from:

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