Frederick Douglass -- Learning to Read
Sophia Auld continued the reading lessons. She taught Fredrick the alphabet. After he had learned the letters, she taught him to spell words of three or four letters. “Without knowing exactly what she was doing, Sophia Auld began the end of slavery for this particular slave.
Proud of her accomplishment, Sophia called on
to show her husband what he had learned.
To her dismay and, indelibly, to Douglass’s, Hugh Auld was not delighted
with the boy’s display of intellectual promise.
He understood, if his wife did not, just what a dangerous pursuit she
had been engaged in, and exploded with what Douglass shrewdly called “the first
… antislavery lecture to which it had been my lot to listen.” As Douglass recalled it, Auld 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 … how to read the bible, there
will be no keeping him”; “it would forever unfit him for the duties of a
slave”; and “… learning would do him no good, but probably, a great deal of
harm—making him disconsolate and unhappy.”
“If you learn him how to read, he’ll want to know how to write; and,
this accomplished, he’ll be running away with himself” (McFeely 30-31). Frederick
These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. … From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. … I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress … Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. … That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress (Douglass 49-50).
The plan which I adopted and the one by which I was most successful, was that of making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers. With their kindly aid, obtained at different times and in different places, I finally succeeded in learning to read. When I was sent on errands, I always took my book with me, and by doing one part of my errand quickly, I found time to get a lesson before my return. I used also to carry bread with me, enough of which was always in the house, and to which I was always welcome; for I was much better off in this regard than many of the poor white children in our neighborhood. This bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give me that more valuable bread of knowledge (Douglass 53-54).
With bribery and trickery,
eventually learned to pronounce
written words by rote memory and by the combined of letters. Frederick
Often he would confront the younger boys on their way home from school with direct questions.
“What did you study today? Where is that in my book? Read it out loud.” Then he might reward them with bread.
On other occasions he would use subterfuge. “Do you see this word? It’s a big word, isn’t it? I bet you don’t know it.”
At the age of twelve he was reading newspapers.
Discarded newspapers were always available for his use in this important port city. At times he would smuggle them into the Auld house to read surreptitiously, and, occasionally, he was discovered.
By this time Sophia Auld’s natural kindness had been replaced by “tiger-like fierceness.”
The first step in her downward course was in her ceasing to instruct me. She now commenced to practice her husband’s precepts. She finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself. She was not satisfied with simply doing as well as he had commanded; she seemed anxious to do better. Nothing seemed to make her more angry than to see me with a newspaper. She seemed to think here lay the danger. I have had her rush at me with a face made all up of fury, and snatch from me a newspaper, in a manner that fully revealed her apprehension. She was an apt woman; and a little experience soon demonstrated, to her satisfaction, that education and slavery were incompatible with each other.
From this time I was most narrowly watched. If I was in a separate room any considerable length of time, I was sure to be suspected of having a book, and was at once called to give an account of myself. All this, however, was too late (Douglass 53).
of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
New York, Penguin Books USA inc., 1968.
McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass.
, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991. Print. New