Is Ignorance Bliss? Frederick Douglass & the Paradox of Knowledge



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Is Ignorance Bliss?

Frederick Douglass & the Paradox of Knowledge

When he was about seven or eight years old, Douglass was sent to live in Baltimore with Mr. Hugh Auld, a relative of Colonel Lloyd. Douglass was extremely happy to learn this news. Douglass had no strong, personal bonds to anyone on the plantation. Additionally, he heard that slaves who live in cities are treated better than those who live in the country. The three days leading up to his move to Baltimore were the happiest days of his life. He spent most of that time at the creek, “washing off the plantation scruff.” Looking back, Douglass believed that his move to Baltimore was the first step he took on his journey to freedom.

When Douglass arrived in Baltimore, he was greeted by Mrs. Sophia Auld (his new owner). He writes, “My new mistress proved to be all she appeared when I first met her at the door, - a woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings. She had never had a slave under her control previously to myself, and prior to her marriage she had been dependent upon her own industry for living. She was a weaver by trade…she had been preserved from the blighting and dehumanizing effects of slavery. I was utterly astonished at her goodness…She was entirely unlike any other white woman I had ever seen….Her face was made of heavenly smiles, and her voice of tranquil music.”

How does the phrase “ignorance is bliss” apply to Frederick Douglass’s initial description of Mrs. Auld?

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Mrs. Auld had been ignorant of slavery for her entire life, but it did not take long for slavery to begin changing her character. Douglass writes, “But alas! this kind heart had but a short time to remain such. The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made of all sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon…Under [slavery’s] influence, the tender heart became stone.”

How did the experience & knowledge of slavery change Mrs. Auld? _____________________________

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Mrs. Auld began teaching Douglass how to read during his first few weeks in Baltimore. Douglass writes, “Soon after I went to live with Mr. & Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A,B,C. After I learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words with three or four letters.” Mrs. Auld was unaware that it was illegal to teach a slave how to read and write. Both she and Douglass could have been punished if anyone learned of her teaching. When Mr. Auld learned of this, he became enraged. Douglass describes how Mr. Auld reacted when he learned that Mrs. Auld had been educating him. He writes, “[Mr. Auld said] A [racial slur] should know nothing but to obey his master – to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best [racial slur] in the world. Now, if you teach that [racial slur] how to read, there will be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”

How does the phrase “ignorance is bliss” apply to Mr. Auld’s explanation for why slaves should not be educated?

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Even though Mrs. Auld stopped teaching Douglass, his education did not end. Douglass had an unparalleled desire to learn how to read and write. During the seven years that he lived with the Aulds, Douglass went to incredible lengths to teach himself how to read and write. Douglass befriended the little white boys that he met and would trade bread for lessons. He would also sneak into the room of the Auld’s oldest child and look through his school books. When he was twelve years old, Douglass found and read a book entitled the “Columbian Orator.” In the book was a conversation between a master and a slave who had run away. The slave master tried to explain to the slave why slavery was good for him, but the slave explained his own point of view. The slave was very intelligent and was able to convince his master that he should be freed.

Reading this book filled Douglass with hope that he could one day be free and that slavery could be abolished in the United States. However, this knowledge was also a source of pain for Douglass. He wrote, “The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery.” Douglass was filled with such hatred that he would, “at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing.” Reading had allowed Douglass to understand that being a slave was the worst thing in the world and that it seemed possible, but unlikely that he would ever be anything but a slave. Douglass goes on to write, “I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity.” Douglass was consumed by thoughts of freedom, but he was also constantly reminded that freedom was something that he was denied.



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Before he escaped to freedom, knowledge was a paradox to Douglass, because it gave him hope, but it also caused him pain. Ultimately, Douglass’s ability to read and write would eventually lead to his freedom. If he had been illiterate (unable to read and write), Douglass never would have been able to escape to the North or share his story with the world.

Name: U.S. History

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Is Ignorance Bliss? Frederick Douglass & the Paradox of Knowledge

  • Did Frederick Douglass truly believe that ignorance was bliss? Support your response using evidence from the text.



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