Reading Fosters Freedom

This seems appropriate for this week. It’s an excerpt from Frederick Douglass’ My Bondage and My Freedom.

The frequent hearing of my mistress reading the Bible — for she often read aloud when her husband was absent — soon awakened my curiosity in respect to this mystery of reading, and roused in me the desire to learn. Having no fear of my kind mistress before my eyes, (she had then given me no reason to fear,) I frankly asked her to teach me to read ; and, without hesitation, the dear woman began the task, and very soon, by her assistance, I was master of the alphabet, and could spell words of three or four letters. My mistress seemed almost as proud of my progress, as if I had been her own child ; and, supposing that her husband would be as well pleased, she made no secret of what she was doing for me. Indeed, she exultingly told him of the aptness of her pupil, of her intention to persevere in teaching me, and of the duty which she felt it to teach me, at least to read the Bible.

Here arose the first cloud over my Baltimore prospects, the precursor of drenching rains and chilling blasts. Master Hugh was amazed at the simplicity of his spouse, and, probably for the first time, he unfolded to her the true philosophy of slavery, and the peculiar rules necessary to be observed by masters and mistresses, in the management of their human chattels. Mr. Auld promptly forbade the continuance of her instruction ; telling her, in the first place, that the thing itself was unlawful ; that it was also unsafe, and could only lead to mischief.

To use his own words, further, he said, “if you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell;” “he should know nothing but the will of his master, and learn to obey it.” “Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world;” “if you teach that nigger — speaking of myself — how to read the bible, there will be no keeping him;” “it would forever unfit him for the duties of a slave;” and “as to himself, learning would do him no good, but probably, a great deal of harm — making him disconsolate and unhappy.” “If you learn him now to read, he’ll want to know how to write; and, this accomplished, he’ll be running away with himself.” Such was the tenor of Master Hugh’s oracular exposition of the true philosophy of training a human chattel ; and it must be confessed that he very clearly comprehended the nature and the requirements of the relation of master and slave. His discourse was the first decidedly anti-slavery lecture to which it had been my lot to listen.

Mrs. Auld evidently felt the force of his remarks; and, like an obedient wife, began to shape her course in the direction indicated by her husband. The effect of his words, on me, was neither slight nor transitory. His iron sentences — cold and harsh — sunk deep into my heart, and stirred up not only my feelings into a sort of rebellion, but awakened within me a slumbering train of vital thought. It was a new and special revelation, dispelling a painful mystery, against which my youthful understanding had struggled, and struggled in vain, to wit : the white man’s power to perpetuate the enslavement of the black man. “Very well,” thought I ; “knowledge unfits a child to be a slave.” I instinctively assented to the proposition . . .

Seized with a determination to learn to read, at any cost, I hit upon many expedients to accomplish the desired end. The plea which I mainly adopted, and the one by which I was most successful, was that of using my young white playmates, with whom I met in the street, as teachers. I used to carry, almost constantly, a copy of Webster’s spelling book in my pocket; and, when sent of errands, or when play time was allowed me, I would step, with my young friends, aside, and take a lesson in spelling. I generally paid my tuition fee to the boys, with bread, which I also carried in my pocket. For a single biscuit, any of my hungry little comrades would give me a lesson more valuable to me than bread. Not every one, however, demanded this consideration, for there were those who took pleasure in teaching me, whenever I had a chance to be taught by them. I am strongly tempted to give the names of two or three of those little boys, as a slight testimonial of the gratitude and affection I bear them, but prudence forbids ; not that it would injure me, but it might, possibly, embarrass them ; for it is almost an unpardonable offense to do any thing, directly or indirectly, to promote a slave’s freedom, in a slave state.

Of course–not to restate the obvious–reading the Bible is particularly beneficial to fostering freedom.

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