20 March 2012
The Power of Knowledge
Knowledge is commonly portrayed as being positive and uplifting, but can it have the adverse effect as well? Can knowledge be detrimental; can it cause feelings of sorrow, despair, or pain in someone? Frederick Douglass was an African-American slave who educated himself by learning how to read and write. In doing so, he was exposed to the many injustices of his time, but he did not let that stop him from pursuing his dream of freedom and fighting for the abolition of slavery. Douglas overcomes many hardships and goes on to become one of the most important and influential African-Americans in history. Frederick Douglass’ essay “Learning to Read” expresses his quest for knowledge which is both painful and liberating.
Moreover, Frederick Douglass’ passion for knowledge begins when his mistress teaches him the alphabet. He recounts, “The first step had been taken. Mistress, in teaching me the alphabet, had given me the inch, and no precaution could prevent me from taking the ell” (47). Using the word ell, Douglass refers to a measure of length, about the length of an arm, representing his desire to reach for longer distances of knowledge. That is the spark that ignites his ambition to become educated, despite being forbidden and punished for it. Douglass’ determination is seen through his proactive attitude. He takes advantage of every opportunity, and converts any willing person in his path, into a teacher who “would give [him] that more valuable bread of knowledge” (47). In doing so, he successfully learns how to read and write, which opens up a whole new world, and forces him to acknowledge notions and ideas he’s never thought about before.
Getting hold of a book titled “The Columbian Orator,” Douglass is introduced to the idea of the power of spoken and written word. One passage in particular, captures his attention. It is a dialogue between a master and his slave, in which each articulately argue for and against slavery, respectively, and results in the emancipation of the slave. Douglass expresses that “the moral which [he] gained from the dialogue was the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder” (48). This has a massive impact on him. Reading the book gives “tongue to interesting thoughts of [his] own soul, which had frequently flashed through [his] mind, and died away for want of utterance” (48). Reading more and more gives Douglass the ability to comprehend and formulate his own solid thoughts, which is an enlightening moment for him.
Furthermore, gaining knowledge reveals to Douglass the painful reality of his place in society, and dramatically changes his perception about slavery and the world. By learning how to read, Douglass is introduced to the thought of freedom, and says how “it was heard in every sound, and seen in everything. It was ever present to torment [him] with a sense of [his] wretched condition” (48). Though learning how to read is an incredible accomplishment for him as a slave, it exposes Douglass to the cruelties and injustices of his time. So troubling is this for him that at times he feels “that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing … It opened [his] eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out” (48). Douglass’ metaphor expresses the hopelessness he feels of his situation, stuck at the bottom of a hole with no way out. Gaining knowledge and understanding through education lifts his veil of ignorance and gives him awareness of the world he is living in at the time. He realizes that he too, has a right to freedom, and begins to see his enslavers as a “band of successful robbers” (48). Douglass’ newfound knowledge brings him pain and suffering, and at times he even envies other slaves “for their stupidity” (48). Being woken from his unconscious and uneducated state, into a prejudiced society deeply affects Douglass and is hard for him to cope with.
Nevertheless, the knowledge of freedom’s promising future keeps Douglass optimistic and gives him faith. He says, “and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself …” (49). Though his chance at gaining freedom seems unrealistic and absurd at the time, Douglass does not let it crush his dream of one day being a free man. He begins to educate himself more on the topic of slavery and often hears the word abolition being mentioned. Learning the meaning of the word gives him the hope that freedom is in fact attainable, and that there are many others fighting for the rights of slaves called abolitionists. His realization is expressed when he says, “The light broke in upon me by degrees” (49). Douglass uses light to represent his revelation that slavery is wrong, unjust, and should be abolished. Becoming educated opens a new door for him. It gives him the hope for freedom and the confidence to overcome his suppressors.
As a result, Douglass’ eventual escape gains him freedom and not only physically liberates him, but mentally as well. Douglass’ gifted ability to speak eloquently and captivate an audience allows him to become “one of the most effective and sought-after speakers of his day” (“Frederick Douglass”). He begins an abolitionist career as a traveling speaker, sharing his experiences and arguing against slavery and oppression. He even publishes his own autobiography in 1845 titled Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, as well as his own newspaper the North Star. Furthermore, Douglass becomes politically active and holds various government positions, a huge accomplishment for an African-American in his time. Douglass uses knowledge to his advantage in order to succeed and this is seen through his remarkable and historic achievements.
Although spending the first 20 years of his life as a slave, Douglass’ persistence to become educated and gain knowledge dramatically transforms him. He realizes that although knowledge can be inspiring and liberating, it can also bring forth pain and suffering. Frederick Douglass’ legacy will be forever remembered and is a prime example of the impact knowledge can have on anyone, but it is what one makes of this knowledge that really makes a difference.
Douglass, Frederick. “Learning to Read and Write.” Mercury Reader. Ed. Natalie
Danner. Massachusetts: Pearson Learning Studios, 2012. 45-51. Print.
"Frederick Douglass." Notable Black American Men, Book II. Ed. Jessie Carney Smith.
Detroit: Gale, 1998. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 20 Mar. 2012.