Slavery and Education as Contrasting Themes in “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave”

Slavery and Education as Contrasting Themes in “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave”

            Slavery serves as the main theme in Frederick Douglas autobiography. In this book, Douglass narrates how he fights against the horrors of slavery, using his determination as his weapon and eradicating ignorance as his shield. Because of this, it should be noted that the author also explores the idea of education as an important theme in the novel. Furthermore, the author tries to draw the relationship of slavery and education as contrasting or incompatible entities. While slavery emphasizes human ignorance, education eliminates it though. When Douglass finally gained literary, he was enlightened on how ignorance was being used to employ slavery among his people. Acquiring education, however, both mean self-alienation and self-hatred for Douglass as he saw the horrible face of a monster called slavery. By understanding the situation of his people trapped and imprisoned by slavery, Douglass felt that education, although an eye-opener is also a curse he has to bear. Thus, slavery and education, being incompatible with each other, can never occur to a person at the same time.

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Education as a curse

                        At first, Frederick Douglass thought that to escape from slavery, he should move to another area, a more urbanized one. He actually said that “ A city slave is almost a freeman,  compared with a slave on the plantation. He is much better fed and clothed, and enjoys privileges altogether unknown to the slave on the plantation. There is a vestige of decency, a sense of shame that does not much to curb and check those outbreaks of atrocious cruelty enacted on the plantation ” (Douglass 38).  He thought that escaping from slavery is like moving in to another area. However, he later recognized the importance of education in gaining freedom. When he was starting to learn how to read and write, though, Douglass suddenly felt that education is not as enlightening as he thought. Education is actually a curse, saying that “ I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me enough of my wretched condition, without the remedy ” (Douglass 47). Because of this, education suddenly served as a source of hatred for Douglass. As his eyes was slowly opening and seeing the rays of knowledge, he was also witnessing the horrible scenarios of slavery. He compared education as  “ …opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out ” (Douglass 47). Nevertheless, Douglass still continued his plan to get away from slavery using the knowledge he has gained. However, he finally realized that eradicating ignorance does not seem to be the sole way of salvation from slavery. Douglass also saw the importance of confidence and determination in order to break the chain of slavery, saying that “ This battle with Mr. Covey as the turning point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self- confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free ” (Douglass 70).

Education as a source of alienation

            Although education was regarded highly by most people, especially those who want to be freed from an oppressed situation, there are still instances when education provides suffering to those acquiring it. Douglass, for example, suffered a lot while he was still learning how to read and write. However, the skills themselves are not the specific things that make learning hard for Douglass but rather his situation and disposition. During his time, it was a grave sin for slaves to be educated. The actual passage from the book says  “ it is unlawful to teach a slave to read  ” (Douglass 20). However, Douglas, having a rebellious heart even at the start, saw how education could help him. Through self-education and a bit from Auld’s wife, Douglass started to learn. However, while was just studying, he had to keep it for himself even if his want to share what he knows to other slaves was enormous. Acquiring education in a secretive manner therefore led Douglass to alienation. He no longer saw himself as one of the slaves since he possessed something they do not have, something that he could not share with them as of that time. Being the only one touched by education, Douglass could not relate his thoughts to his fellow slaves, thus making him feel alienated from them. This alienation brought by education could be further illustrated using Douglass’ flee. It was noticeable that only Douglass had the chance to escape from his slave owners. This was due to his knowledge of the urban cities in the North that other slaves do not know. Furthermore, Douglass’ alienation continued to exist even if he had already reached the North. He realized that being a black man there is worse as his situation in Maryland, saying that “ There I was in the midst of thousands, and yet a perfect stranger, without home and without friends, in the midst of thousand of my own brethren—children of a common Father, and yet I dared not to unfold to any of them my sad condition ” (Douglass 79).

            Slavery and education both portrayed their importance in the life of Frederick Douglass. An American slave was his title for himself, and yet he managed to break the bond linking him to slavery through combining education, confidence, and determination. However, what he is right now is a product of various sufferings—alienation and hatred are two of which—that made his story more remarkable. Indeed, Douglass proved that slavery and education are like the two opposite poles of a magnet. Ignorance from education attracts slavery just like how freedom from slavery attracts acquisition of education.

Work Cited

Douglass, Frederick. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. New

York: Penguin Classics, 1982


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