Frederick Douglass was born into the lifelong, evil, bondage of slavery. His autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, depicts his accomplishments. The narrative, however, is not only the story of his success. It is not simply a tale of his miraculous escape from slavery. Frederick Douglass’ narrative is, in fact, an account of his tremendous strides through literacy. He exemplifies a literate man who is able to use the psychological tools of thought to escape the intense bonds of slavery.
Hard labor, and deprivation of both physical and spiritual necessities, defined slavery in the south. Frederick Douglass struggled throughout his youth to keep himself amply fed and, in optimum physical condition. He struggled throughout his life, searching for some rational belief. Through his potentially lifelong struggle of slavery, he was forced to use his reasoning to overcome internal as well as external obstacles. Separated from his family and loved ones, Frederick Douglass was deprived of past cultural and religious beliefs. He also had the burden of watching his masters use religion as justification for the treacherous conditions of slavery. The ambiguous picture that he received about religion developed a question of God’s benevolence. If my master has God’s approval for all of his wrongdoing, how can religion be developed through good will? If God condones such appalling behavior, how can I follow such lead? Despite the hardships entailed, Frederick Douglass was surprisingly able to use his cognitive thought to effectively search for his worldly niche. He began to accumulate his own thoughts, values, goals and opinions and he began his journey toward psychological, internal understanding. Frederick Douglass had a positive attitude toward the conditions of slavery. He did not allow the slaveholders to capture his opinions and judgement. He did not allow the slaveholders to destroy his dignity.
Douglass successfully climbed the ladder from a position of a powerless slave to a strong, devoted, influential, individual. He did so when he began to divert from the path of ignorance to one of education and power. How did Douglass escape the blinding state of ignorance? How did Douglass manage to escape misery and attain happiness? How did Douglass manage the escape of bondage and slavery? This transition involved a series of processed, the first being the destruction of ignorance.
In the eyes of the slaveholders, a happy slave was an ignorant one. For this reason, they were denied any form of knowledge. The masters were fearful of discovering that a slave had run away or were plotting an escape. They were afraid of a slave acquiring a vision beyond the unjust conditions they lived by. In Frederick Douglass’, Narrative, he mentions how the first steps toward overcoming ignorance can lead to discontentment and realization of the harsh increments they live by as slaves. “…Whenever my condition was improved, instead of its increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free, and set me to thinking of plans to gain my freedom. I have found, that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one” (Douglass, 64). Frederick Douglass, however, possessed the power to look toward a different, happier future. This power was his optimism. It enabled him to transpose his ignorance to knowledge. His wisdom and hopefulness lead him to escape slavery.
How can a slave learn to read, write and analyze without any form of schooling? How can a person kept separated from the masses of society find the tools necessary for learning? How can a servant escape from their master’s evil watch to begin their educational adventure? In order to answer these questions, we must first understand Daniel J. Royer’s arguments posed in, “The Process of Literacy as Communal Involvement in the Narratives of Frederick Douglass.” Royer’s main emphasis is how a dictionary and grammar textbook is not sufficient for the mastery of literacy. The most necessary ability is to apply newfound knowledge to feelings and to convey these feelings through these literate means of expression. Such action completes Douglass’ first phase of escape.
Frederick Douglass had an advantage over many other slaves. He had the opportunity to learn from his master’s wife Mrs. Auld. From Mrs. Auld, Douglass received a preliminary, superficial background of literacy. Her husband, however, insisted that Douglass’ schooling come to an end. Mr. Auld was extremely opposed to the education of slaves for selfish reasons. Frederick Douglass cites a conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Auld: “‘if you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master-to do as he is told to do…if you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave…’” (Douglass, 29). Douglass’ depiction of this conversation exemplified the ignorance of Mr. Auld. He was unaware that literacy, alone, can not allow a person to understand hardship, discontent, lack of mercy and their inner selves. It is literacy and cognition combined that promotes life realizations. Daniel J. Royer attempts to prove that a slave’s outlook can either permit them to exist outside the mental and physical boundaries of slavery. Frederick Douglass’ positive approach to his captivity allows him to live a life apart from his imprisonment. Attitude is a co-requisite of literacy that delimits opportunity.
More important than scholarly ability, and before literacy can be applied properly, there is an imperative pre-requisite need. This is the “psychological dynamic” of thought (Royer, 368). Frederick Douglass has attained this psychological dynamic through his “power to reason” (Douglass, 65). The slaveholders deemed it their duty to “darken [their] moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible to annihilate the power of reason” (Douglass, 64-5). Douglass, however, recognized the injustice of slavery. His realization of this intense unfairness lead to his “running away” with himself” (Royer, 370). Douglass runs away both physically, by escaping the bonds of slavery, and mentally, by escaping the reality of slavery through his thoughts, contemplation, and powerful reasoning.
Frederick Douglass regards the power to reason as essential to his being. This necessity runs parallel to Daniel J. Royer’s belief that the psychological component of literacy is fundamental to cognition. Literacy involves the existence of social relationships in addition to the mere memorization of letters and words common to a traditional education. In his narrative, Douglass shows that he has attained this psychological understanding. With his acquisition of power, the slaveholders no longer oppressed him because they were no longer in control of his mind. Traditionally, a slave’s mind is “starved by their cruel masters. They [are] shut up in mental darkness” (Douglass, 55). Frederick Douglass’ emergence from this mental darkness is quite apparent when he realized that he is not “expelled from the social system, not outside of it or even at its ‘margins’ but rather inside it and oppressed” (Royer, 368). In the Narrative, he comes to this realization when he “understood what had been to [him] a most perplexing difficulty-to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (Douglass, 29).
Not only did Frederick Douglass indicate the power and pride of his achievement but he also confronted the importance of community that he discovered. He does this when he refers to the “white man’s power to enslave the black man” (Douglass, 29). He does not single himself out by using the words: “me” or “a black man.” After Douglass became a literate man, he realized that freedom would make him happy. He proves his consistent involvement and the creation of a slave community when Douglass makes his readers aware of his generosity toward other slaves. He is willing to share his knowledge and his discoveries with fellow slaves.
Frederick Douglass joined together with his peers to plan their mission of escape. Douglass contributed to this community by instructing his fellow slaves in Sabbath school of a free black man. Douglass regarded this action as “the sweetest engagement with which [he] was ever blessed” (55). This was so because, through the instruction of the Sabbath school, Douglass was able to engage in interpersonal interaction. He took advantage of the opportunity to involve his power of literacy with his own personal life and feelings. He then was willing to share and further develop these thoughts with his companions. Daniel J. Royer assumes involved literacy to provide direction toward understanding a person’s current situation or conflict. Frederick Douglass is a prime example of this continuous process.
How did Douglass use his community to understand the domination of slavery? How did his teaching amplify his power? How did Douglass use his power of language to escape from the harsh increments of slavery? These answers have become readily apparent. The power of language, when developed effectively entails the power to inspect life situations and plan the rectification of problems. This process, however, is not always a story of success. Frederick Douglass’ inspection, plot and dream failed the first time. He was, however, devoted and committed. Frederick Douglass’ story, therefore, became one of success.
With intense pride, Frederick Douglass was liberated. The first part of the complicated, dual process that led to his escape has become quite clear. Douglass simultaneously, while learning the skills to read and write, acquired the “power to reason.” This power that both he and Daniel Royer held with commendation allowed Douglass to realize the brutal injustice of slavery. He knew he would only be happy if he was able to break away from his master. Upon this realization, the first part of this process was completed.
The second part of this dual process that guided Douglass to his escape is simple compared to the complexities of literacy. This portion of his travel is the actual escape from his master’s home. At this point in his journey, Frederick Douglass’ physical condition becomes most important. He, physically, has to pass dangerous boundaries while striving to reach Baltimore-his final destination. In the Narrative, Frederick Douglass does not share his experiences of his travel. He leaves the events of his escape for the reader’s imagination. He realizes that he must keep names and destinations concealed from the advocates of slavery. He, once again, uses his power to rationalize and recognizes that future runaways may be unable to succeed if he gives away his strategies. Given that Frederick Douglass values the community as well as himself, he did not want to ruin other slave’s chances for freedom. At the point of escape, Douglass completed this dual process.
Douglass, once again, uses his powerful tool of thought to survive as a “runaway” slave and to continue to lead a successful life. His experience is proof that the imperative aspects of literacy perpetuate for a lifetime. Thought and understanding are invaluable, everlasting tools that inevitably lead to success.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written
By Himself. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.
Royer, Daniel J. “The Process of Literacy as Communal Involvement in the Narratives of
Frederick Douglass.” African American Review 28 (1994): 363-374