Around the age of twelve, Frederick Douglass was sold from a plantation in the countryside to a family in the city of Baltimore. His new mistress set out to teach him to read, and got through the alphabet, until her husband made her stop. “[I]f you teach that nigger . . . how to read,” he said, “there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave” (64).
Hearing this “stirred up” something deep within Douglass. From that point on, while everyone in the house worked hard to keep Douglass from reading, he worked all the harder to read. “If I was in a separate room any considerable length of time,” he shares, “I was sure to be suspected of having a book, and was at once called in to give an account of myself. All this, however, was too late” (66).
Douglass found creative ways to make his own space for reading and for writing. When he was sent on errands in the city, he would bring along a book and some bread, hurry to finish the tasks as quickly as possible, and then give the bread to poor white children in the neighborhood in return for reading lessons, “that more valuable bread of knowledge” (67). His strategy for learning to write was similar. Sneaking in time between errands, tricking the neighborhood boys into teaching him, and making use of what was at hand to write with. “My copy-book was the board fence, brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk,” he relates (70).
One book that Douglass “got hold of” played a particularly important role in bringing him to political consciousness. The book was a collection of classical speeches and among other pieces that he managed to buy secondhand for fifty cents at a bookstore in Baltimore (67). He read and reread the book at every opportunity. One of the texts included in it was a dialogue between a master and slave who has run away and been caught three times. “The slave was made to say some very smart as well as impressive things in reply to his master,” convincing the master in the end to set him free (68). Another of the texts was a speech promoting the “emancipation” of Catholics in Ireland. “These were choice documents to me,” Douglass writes. “I read them over and over with unabated interest” (68).
Through his reading he came to understand “the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder” and he gained a “bold denunciation of slavery, and a powerful vindication of human rights” (68). Moreover, he writes, “The reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery” (68).
It is through reading—reading in space that he had to create for himself—that he came to consciousness, learned to think and to articulate political critique. This brought him great agony for a time, as he realized more and more his condition as a slave. As he awakened to thought and critical awareness, he awakened to his humanity and the injustice of his situation. But it also gave him the “hope of being free.”
“The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness,” he writes. “I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, I felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm” (69). This hope, as we know, led him eventually to escape from slavery, work as an antislavery activist, and write speeches and books that still speak so powerfully today.
Douglass, Frederick. A Narrative of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself: With Related Documents. 2nd ed. Ed. David W. Blight. Boston: Bedford, 2003. Print.