The Narrative Angle

Frederick Douglass is an orator, newspaper editor, and significant civil rights activists in the nineteenth century. Douglass provides a glimpse inside the true depth and extent of slavery in the excerpt “Learning to Read”. Douglass uses three modes of persuasion to connect to his audience as he gives a first-hand account of the struggles he faces to free himself mentally and physically from slavery. Through effective use of ethos, logos, and pathos, Douglass argues the importance of literacy in overcoming oppression.

Douglass establishes ethos in the first sentence, “[he] [lives] in Master Hugh’s family about seven years. During this time, [he] [succeeds] in learning to read and write” (346). Because he writes about his own life experiences as a slave, he is more than qualified to write about slavery. Because it is illegal for slaves to have an education, the fact that he learns to read and write while he is a slave, says a lot about his character.

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Douglass’ tone throughout the excerpt is mostly modest instead of hostile, convincing his audience he is telling the truth. To increase his ethos Douglass writes about the strategies he invents to gain knowledge, “[t]he plan which [he] [adopts], and the one by which [he] was most successful, was that of making friends of all the little white boys whom [he] met in the streets. As many of these as [he] could, [he] [converts] into teachers” (Douglass 347). He turns children into teachers and through an exchange of bread successfully learns how to read.

Douglass wants to name the children in his book to show his gratitude, but only names the street where each child lives, increasing his ethos. Douglass’ most important appeal to ethos is in the preface, there one will find his preface is written by William Lloyd Garrison, who gives a preview of what is to come and assures it is all true. Douglass establishes a high ethos that in return paves the way for his audience to see the logic in how slavery is bad for all involved.

Douglass’ teacher is a first-time slave owner and treats him like a human should be treated and after yielding to her husband’s request, she realizes that educating him will free his mind and allow him to make better decisions for himself. Douglass says, “[u]nder its influence, the tender heart [becomes] stone, and the lamblike disposition [gives] way to one of tigerlike fierceness” (Douglass 346). The power that comes with slavery destroys the morality of Douglass’ teacher, and transforms her from human to inhumane in order to succumb to the duties of a slave owner.

This transformation shows the audience how slavery is bad for slave owners and the slaves. Douglass writes about his struggles and experiences as a child growing into a teenager, creating a common ground his audience can relate to. By placing themselves in his shoes and trying to imagine how they can achieve what so many take for granted, and at such a young age, sets the stage for Douglass to execute his strongest mode of persuasion. Douglass’ use of pathos is key to his argument on the importance of literacy.

Through his writing he creates a very vivid picture for his audience, appealing to every emotion. He writes about the young children feeling sorry for him because he is a slave for life, and hopes that someday he will be free. Here he wants the audience to see that even a child realizes slavery is bad. Although literacy would eventually become his freedom, the truth enslaves him mentally. Douglass says, “[t]he silver trump of freedom [has] roused [his] soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now [appears] , to disappear no more forever” (348).

Douglass’ goal is to be a free man, and now not only does he know the extent and depth of slavery, but he knows there is nothing he can do to stop slavery. Slavery was so horrific that he envied the clueless slaves and even contemplated death, but it was hope that saved him. Douglass appeals to emotions from sympathy, fear, anger, and hope, executing accurate pathos. The combination of ethos, logos, and pathos in his argument persuades the audience to stand with him in the fight to end slavery.

Douglass’ views on the importance of literacy in overcoming oppression was effective by establishing ethical credibility, accurately using logic, and appealing to emotions. Through his persistence to read and write, he discovers that knowledge is the key to Freedom. The different strategies a writer employs is just as crucial as the message itself. Most people do not realize that we use persuasion of some sort in our everyday conversations. With a with a little practice on the strategies of persuasion, one could increase the percentage of outcome in their favor.

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