Empowering Frederick Douglass: Knowledge

The autobiographical tool of knowledge appears and plays a highly influential role in ‘The Life of Frederick Douglass.’  As Smith and Watson state, this tool questions aspects of knowledge such as source, cultural context, different forms (worldly, self, etc.), and effect.  In the beginning of Douglass’ life, his only knowledge is that of the slave world and their duties.  He knows the land, the families, and the brutal ways of life as a slave.  The passages on page 364 of this narrative embody Douglass’ shift towards literate knowledge in important and influential ways.  He begins to grasp the concept of learning and of literate knowledge by the good graces of Mrs. Auld, who teaches him the alphabet.  From here he branches out to forming words under her aid. Within this time however, Mr. Auld makes a comment that forever changes his concept of knowledge, self, and identity.  Mr. Auld professes, “‘If you give a n***** an inch, he’ll take an ell. A n***** should know nothing but to obey his master–to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best n***** in the world. . .It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. . .”  Mrs. Auld afterwards refuses to teach him, so he teaches himself how to read and write, with the help of some neighbor boys.  This was a huge achievement for a slave at this time in history and marks a turn towards change for Douglass and others.  He provides readers with a glimpse into the culture of that specific historical time, relating in detail economic conditions on the plantations (crops sold, etc.), what certain cities were like, the conditions of slavery (living, selling, etc.), and the simple fact that newspapers were widely read and gives a few samples of book titles.  It is within this period of learning that he begins to question his own life, his own state as a slave, and his identity.  He writes, “From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.”  Douglass admits that the simple act of learning to read and write and of the knowledge Mr. Auld unintentionally imparts on him had a great effect on him. Here he starts to realize the sad, trapped state of slaves due to their ignorance and the power the masters have over them because of this, and aims to turn things around.  This is a great revelation in the span of his life, one that leads him later to free himself from slavery and claim a new life. He gains learning and knowledge that leads him to realizing self-knowledge, which he later relates to every one of his readers. With a little help in the beginning from a kind woman, he managed to teach himself how to read and write, an empowering form of knowledge.  For Frederick Douglass, it was knowledge that freed him and changed his life so completely, and that he later uses to help other slaves.

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