Until the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862, slavery had remained a vital facet of American society and a main function of the country’s prosperity. The large cash crop production and slave ownership of the south created a system of slavery that would cease to be abolished until after the country errupted into civil war in 1861. Yet, before the abolition of slavery, very few slaves were lucky enough to escape their enslavers and reach the freedom which awaited them in northern states. In his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass outlines his struggles as a captive of slavery and his henceforth journey towards freedom. Douglass mentions the various strategies slave owners use to keep their slaves in a subordinate position. The white, slaveholders of the South use various methods of dehumanization and manipulation to make their slaves ignorant to their wretched state of enslavement. In order to become weary of his deplorable enslaved state, Frederick Douglass seeks education and knowledge which empowers him to gain his freedom.
Throughout his service of slavery, Douglass observes how he and his companions are manipulated by their masters in order to keep them ignorant to their state of service. During the holiday of Christmas, white slave masters feed their slaves excess alcohol in order to make them appear unworthy, and ignorant, of the relatively little freedom that is lent to them during the holiday. Douglass explains that the slave holders’ goal is “to disgust their slaves with freedom, by plunging them into the lowest depths of dissipation” (Douglass 45). They divise “various plans to make [the slaves] drunk,” and by getting them as drunk as possible, the whites give slaves a misrepresentation of the freedom in which they believe they are incapable of achieving (Douglass 45). This altered perception of freedom makes a slave believe he is unworthy of having freedom and therefore, after the holidays, they stagger “up from the filth of wallowing – feeling, upon the whole, rather glad to go, from what our master had deceived us into a belief was freedom, back to the arms of slavery” (Douglass 45). White slaveholders make their slaves ignorant to the idea of freedom as to deceive them into thinking that it in unachievable because a slave simply cannot handle the power of freedom. Because of these abuses of freedoms that the slave owners manipulate unto their slaves during the holiday season, it leads them to think that it is more worthy to remain a slave than to seek this unachievable freedom.
In his experience as an enslaved African American, the various slave owners that Douglass comes in contact with keep their slaves ignorant to basic knowledge such as their age, birth parents, or even family origin. According to Douglass, “it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant” (Douglass 1). By doing this, slave owners rob their slaves of a natural sense of identity which turns them into single minded humans, unable to think of themselves as anything but a slave to a white man. When Douglass goes to work for a man by the name of Mr. Hugh Auld in the city of Baltimore, he is fortunate to receive instruction from Mr. Auld’s wife who begins to teach Douglass the alphabet and small word building. However, upon finding out about this tutoring, Master Auld immediately prohibits any further education, explaining that it is “unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, ‘A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master ﹣to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world’” (Douglass 20). Mr. Auld points out that slaves are intended to do one thing ﹣to do as they are told. By teaching them anything else, it will deem them inept for their original purpose. Slave holders intend to keep their slaves in this state of ignorance as to have them perform their tasks without distraction or second thought. If a slave learns to read or write, it will give him the power to think for himself and this will turn him into an ineffective worker. Douglass also mentions that “to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason” (Douglass 58). Slavery is not the choice of a slave, and therefore it is most effective to completely eliminate the thoughts of a slave so all they can comprehend is the life of slavery. A thoughtless slave will not be able to question the notion of slavery because they lack the power of reason and thoughtfulness to do so.
From Douglass’s early exposure to education and literature, it allows him to use the power of knowledge to articlulate his endowment to slavery and discover the key to his freedom. Douglass understands that this power of knowledge separates him from his ignorant slave peers because it can propel him towards freedom. When Douglas is prevented from learning any more English by Mr. Auld, he mentions, “From that moment I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (Douglass 20). Slave owners such as Mr. Auld do not allow their slaves to receive any education as it will let slaves think for themselves and and thus reverse their ignorance. By reversing this ignorance, slaves can begin to comprehend the inhumanities of slavery and understand themselves as more than just a slave. The little education that Douglass recieves allows him to percieve the injustices of slavery and to begin to use his knowledge as a tool of escape from his enslavement. However, this newly received knowledge leads Douglass to become hopeless at first. Upon reading a book called “The Columbian Orator,” Douglass explains: “the more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. 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” (Douglass 24). Knowledge allows Douglass to understand the injustices of slavery, but it does not immediatly offer a solution. Douglass’s knowledge does not automatically set him free because there is still a grave risk associated with escaping towards the north. Instead, knowledge gives Douglass an advantage and the proper guidance towards his freedom. By receiving guidance and self-educating himself, Douglass is able to break his state of ignorance in order to utilize his knowledge as a pathway towards freedom.
Because of the many manipulations and dehumanizations that slave owners place upon their slaves, their slaves remain ignorant to their state of endowment. Slaveholders do this because it creates the most efficiency out of a slave. By being unknowledgeable, these ignorant slaves are not able to think for themselves and can only perceive their life as that of a slave. An ignorant slave cannot question the notion of slavery because they lack the knowledge to be able to do so. Douglass’s enlightenment through education highlights the importance of education in creating a gateway towards freedom. By becoming educated, subordinate people can use their knowledge to overthrow a hierarchy and find their freedom. In the 21st century, education is an aspect of society that is often taken for granted. The utilization of knowledge by Frederick Douglass shows the importance of knowledge as a key to freedom and as a tool to further advance the human race.