Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

Dangerous Literacy

Once again on Frederick Douglass.

We know from the previous post that Douglass was familiar with William Cowper. But how did he come to know how to read at all?

Douglass tells of his move from the Eastern Shore of Maryland to Baltimore in chapter 10 of My Bondage and My Freedom. There he came under the dominion of a new master and mistress. His mistress was a religious woman, and wished to teach Douglass to read so that he could read the Bible. When her husband discovered this, he put a stop to it right away, due to his belief that reading and understanding were in fundamental conflict with the American system of chattel slavery. Douglass heard this and took it to heart, and came to agree with his master, though taking that conclusion in a very different direction. In earlier chapters, Douglass discusses the vested interest that masters had in breaking up natural families; here, in keeping men in ignorance.

Not long after this time, Douglass takes a much keener interest in the Bible itself and what it has to say about sin and salvation. I intend to devote a future post to that topic.

The frequent hearing of my mistress reading the bible for she often read aloud when her husband was absent soon awakened my curiosity in respect to this mystery of reading, and roused in me the desire to learn. Having no fear of my kind mistress before my eyes, (she had then given me no reason to fear,) I frankly asked her to teach me to read; and, without hesitation, the dear woman began the task, and very soon, by her assistance, I was master of the alphabet, and could spell words of three or four letters. My mistress seemed almost as proud of my progress, as if I had been her own child; and, supposing that her husband would be as well pleased, she made no secret of what she was doing for me. Indeed, she exultingly told him of the aptness of her pupil, of her intention to persevere in teaching me, and of the duty which she felt it to teach me, at least to read the bible. Here arose the first cloud over my Baltimore prospects, the precursor of drenching rains and chilling blasts.

Master Hugh was amazed at the simplicity of his spouse, and, probably for the first time, he unfolded to her the true philosophy of slavery, and the peculiar rules necessary to be observed by masters and mistresses, in the management of their human chattels. Mr. Auld promptly forbade continuance of her instruction; telling her, in the first place, that the thing itself was unlawful; that it was also unsafe, and could only lead to mischief. To use his own words, further, he 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.” “if you teach that nigger—speaking of myself—how to read the bible, there will be no keeping him;” “it would forever unfit him for the duties of a slave;” and “as to himself, learning would do him no good, but probably, a great deal of harm—making him disconsolate and unhappy.” “If you learn him now to read, he’ll want to know how to write; and, this accomplished, he’ll be running away with himself.” Such was the tenor of Master Hugh’s oracular exposition of the true philosophy of training a human chattel; and it must be confessed that he very clearly comprehended the nature and the requirements of the relation of master and slave. His discourse was the first decidedly anti-slavery lecture to which it had been my lot to listen. Mrs. Auld evidently felt the force of his remarks; and, like an obedient wife, began to shape her course in the direction indicated by her husband. The effect of his words, on me, was neither slight nor transitory. His iron sentences—cold and harsh—sunk deep into my heart, and stirred up not only my feelings into a sort of rebellion, but awakened within me a slumbering train of vital thought. It was a new and special revelation, dispelling a painful mystery, against which my youthful understanding had struggled, and struggled in vain, to wit: the white man’s power to perpetuate the enslavement of the black man. “Very well,” thought I; “knowledge unfits a child to be a slave.” I instinctively assented to the proposition; and from that moment I understood the direct pathway from slavery to freedom. This was just what I needed; and I got it at a time, and from a source, whence I least expected it. I was saddened at the thought of losing the assistance of my kind mistress; but the information, so instantly derived, to some extent compensated me for the loss I had sustained in this direction. Wise as Mr. Auld was, he evidently underrated my comprehension, and had little idea of the use to which I was capable of putting the impressive lesson he was giving to his wife. He wanted me to be a slave; I had already voted against that on the home plantation of Col. Lloyd. That which he most loved I most hated; and the very determination which he expressed to keep me in ignorance, only rendered me the more resolute in seeking intelligence. In learning to read, therefore, I am not sure that I do not owe quite as much to the opposition of my master, as to the kindly assistance of my amiable mistress. I acknowledge the benefit rendered me by the one, and by the other; believing, that but for my mistress, I might have grown up in ignorance.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

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