Since the beginning of civilization, slavery has persisted and expanded due to racism and the demand for cheap labor. The most tumultuous social changes in the United States occurred just prior to and during the Civil War with slavery being the primary debate. Arguably, the most influential African American individual of the time period was Frederick Douglass. Douglass escaped slavery and became a powerful spokesman for the Abolition movement. In his book, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he details his personal experiences including the atrocities and hypocrisies he encountered as a former slave; thus, forever shaping public opinion of the cruel enfranchisement. Douglass claims that the most pivotal point in the life of a slave is when they begin the process of education which ultimately leads to the discovery of the radical idea of abolition deeply impacting the slaves and their masters.
Education fosters integration into society. Douglass begins to show interest in learning when he is living in Baltimore with Hugh and Sophia Auld because their son, Thomas, is attending school. Douglass desperately wants to learn how to read and write, so he resorts to creative stratagems such as bartering bread in exchange for reading and writing lessons. Douglas writes, “This bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give me that more valuable bread of knowledge” (23; ch. 7). The metaphor “bread of knowledge” is used to emphasize the importance of knowledge. Bread is important to the hungry boys because it is food that helps them stay alive. Similar to bread, knowledge is important to Douglass and necessary for him to stay alive. Due to his education, Douglass learned that freedom is a possibility, and he felt that he should be able to obtain it: “Have not I as good a right to be free as you have?” (23; ch. 7). Douglass poses this rhetorical question to make the reader examine whether slaves should have the same rights as the white folk in society such as freedom. He desires the audience to debate the validity of the inhumane justifications for slavery. Douglass develops his point with an effective metaphor: “I could regard them [masters] in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had their homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery” (24; ch. 7). This use of figurative language helps the reader to understand Frederick Douglass’s perception of slavemasters because he compares them to robbers who stole land and forced them into slavery. Though he is grateful for learning how to read and write, Douglass admits, “As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing” (24; ch. 7). The antithesis of curse and blessing strengthens his message that education gave him newfound knowledge, but that comes with consequences: “It [education] had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy” (24; ch. 7). Despite little to no aid in his endeavor for education, eventually, he learns how to read and write.
The education of slaves leads to the discovery of the abolition movement, the fight to abolish slavery in the United States. This is the remedy that Douglass desires. He accidentally stumbles across the word, abolition, in the book, The Columbian Orator. He recognizes the word as it is commonly used in context with slavery. Once he understands the meaning of the word abolition, Douglass is awoken spiritually, and he accounts, “The silver trump of freedom has roused my soul to eternal wakefulness” (24; ch. 7). Douglas incorporates the use of personification of the word freedom to illustrate the extent to which the possibility of freedom affected him mentally and emotionally. Douglass attempts to thwart any scheme of escaping when he encounters Irishmen at the shipyard who advise him to pursue freedom: “They both advised me to run away to the north; that I should find friends there, and that I should be free” (25; ch. 7). This hortative sentence compels Douglass to entertain the possibility before his suspension quickly overrides any decision. In response, he acts nonchalant to show that he has no interest in running away in case they are ungenuine. However, Douglass cannot rid the idea of being a free man; thus, he begins to resent his previous and current masters: “The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers” (24; ch. 7). The parallelism of “the more I” effectively conveys the message that with more education, his contempt for the enslavers grows. Ultimately, Douglass reveals that he views insignificant objects as tormenters of slavery: “It [his condition as a slave] was pressed upon me by every object within sight or hearing, animate or inanimate…It was heard in every sound, and seen in everything. It was present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition” (24; ch. 7). The utilization of an anaphora in this sentence is effective because the repetition of the phrase, “it was”, appeals to the emotions of the reader. Douglass intentionally influences the reader to feel trapped just as he feels when every insignificant object seems to mock him because it is a reminder of his enslavement. Abolition plants a seed in his mind that continues to flourish until he finally escapes the chains of slavery.
Education is powerful because it provides slaves with knowledge that they use to form their indiviual ideas and opinions. This is a massive threat to slave owners. The masters attempt to thwart any possibility of education because that leads to slaves discovering abolition and questioning the institution of slavery. This explains Master Auld’s behavior when he sharply criticizes his wife for teaching Douglas how to read and write. In their first interactions, Sophia Auld is characterized as warm and friendly to Douglass which he views as unusual: “She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach” (22; ch. 7). This parallelism of an object she has and for whom (an example, she has bread for the hungry) helps the readers to understand her generosity and giving nature. However, she abuses the power bestowed upon her by slavery. Douglass observes, “Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities” (22; ch. 7). Douglass personifies slavery by giving it the human quality of deprivation. This adds to the immoral nature of slavery because it has the power to corrupt even the kindest of people: “Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness” (22; ch. 7). Douglass incorporates the use of a metaphor to illustrate the chilling influence of slavery. The words tender and stone create an image in the reader’s mind that aids them in visualizing the change in her demeanor. Mrs. Auld used to be inviting because she encouraged the education of Douglass until her husband interrupted the affair. Instead, she left him in “mental darkness” (22; ch. 7). The slave owners forbade any means of education as it gave slaves the ability to question their position in society such as freedom.
We as Americans are failing many children with our education system, namely minorities. Douglass’s narrative is more valid for our era as it shows the harmful effects of an education system that is based on racial bias. More than a hundred years later, America’s system maintains corruption. This is evident in schools that are racist and nativist such as ones found rooted in the deep south where the majority of the population is caucasian. Douglass teaches Americans that education should have no prerequisites by highlighting the motives and justifications for depriving humans of knowledge. The white population of society gains power and superiority over the “inferior” minorities of their community when education is restricted. Americans must solve this issue the Douglass raised for the sake of the children who are deemed inferior by government officials and continue to live their life at a disadvantage.