Frederick Douglas: Learning to Read and Write Essay


When Frederick Douglas finally learned how to read and write, it was as if a whole new world was opened to him but instead of the joy of learning, he discovered a profound sadness upon realizing that he ought to be free and yet he was not. Learning to read and write was Douglas’ ticket out of slavery but this is not the main point of the story, it was the process of learning that opened his eyes to slavery in America and its negative impact to both slave and free. In other words the discussion about the process of learning to read and write was the framework that he used to illustrate what slavery is all about.

For many Americans in the early 19 th century, reading and writing are indispensable tools that will help a person become the best that he could be. Learning this skill is a privilege that should have been open to everyone. The unwritten rule that slaves must remain ignorant for the rest of their lives created a hunger in Douglas to know more than merely to read and write. Yet, he would not have known about the true evil of slavery if his former master and mistress did not oppose vehemently to his education. Their insistence that young Frederick Douglas should only exist as a mere resource to be exploited awakened in him the passion to understand why he is a slave and why there are people above him who continue to harass him and his kind. It was as if all of a sudden he was placed in a different vantage point. He saw something that both black and white failed to see.

Douglas did not simply describe slavery as evil. He created a backdrop for this ideas so that the people in America will come to fully understand slavery, that it is not an institution established for the good of all but a system created to benefit a few. One of his most effective strategy was to not only to describe the pitiful state of the African-American slaves but he also pointed out that the slave masters deserve the same pity because they too were affected by the evil forces at work within this system.

Using metaphors, Douglas described the transformation of a nice lady into someone more terrible than a taskmaster. Douglas wrote about his former mistress with affection but he could not hide the fact that she was no longer the same person and Douglas, talking about the evil operating within slavery, made the following remark, “Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness” (p. 1077). Without a doubt this statement was intended to attract the interest of the abolitionist as well as to provoke the white people to reconsider slavery.

It was a masterstroke of brilliance on the part of Douglas. If he simply decided to write about the suffering of the slaves in the South he could only expect the empathy of African-Americans. But when he revealed the negative impact of slavery, by referring to his former mistress and then uttering the famous statement, “Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me” Douglas succeeded in rousing the sympathy of his readers both black and white. But more importantly he forced slave holders in the South to reconsider slavery or at least how they treat their slaves.

It is also interesting how he developed the platform from which he would launch his attack against slavery. It started innocently enough, as if he was merely talking about reading and writing and the obvious reasons why slave masters will not allow their slaves to know more than the skill to do manual labor. But it is the denial of this basic right to learn and to think that started the discussion. Douglas was very much aware about the necessary knowledge required before Northerners will begin to pour out overwhelming support towards abolition. Douglas had to make them understand why it is imperative that slavery must end. It was as if he turned tables against the slaveholders and made them realize that it is not the slaves who were ignorant, it was also their masters. They were ignorant of the fact that slavery is not a good thing for them.

Douglas was also very much aware that he could not afford to describe slavery in abstract terms and use words like suffering and cruelty haphazardly. This means that he cannot simply make general statements because his audience, the influential people in the North will simply consider him as nothing more than a runaway slave eager to make a mountain out of a molehill. Douglas had to use something that they could understand and because he was targeting the educated members of society he appealed to them through the story that slaves never had the chance to read and write.

At first glance the story seems to be straightforward. A slave learned the art of reading and writing and then used this skill to escape. But a closer examination of the narrative will reveal that Douglas was a master communicator who understood the power of a good story. He had the right ingredients to create one spellbinding tale because he was a former slave who had something to say about the most controversial issue at that period in American history. Douglas was not simply saying that it was his ability to read and write that rescued him and allowed him to escape. It was the process of learning how to read and write that made Douglas fully understand the negative impact of slavery both to slave owners and their slaves.

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Learning to Read and Write by Frederick Douglass: Analysis

Frederic Douglass was born in slavery. This misfortune did not prevent him from struggling for his life and striving for knowledge. In the fragment of his autobiography “Learning to Read and Write” he tells how he succeeds in the literacy. A lot of tricks help him to do that. In that time and environment slaves were not allowed to learn to read and write. That could help them to understand the nature of their slavery and begin to struggle for freedom, as Douglass did.

The author tells us about a great opposition to his literacy, although his mistress was “a kind and tender-hearted woman” (Douglass). At first she taught him reading with her own son and showed him the ABC, but became opposite, like her husband. His master was a shrewd person, and he realized that Frederic would be able to read news and question why he is a slave if he became literate. It could destroy the comfortable world of his masters. Knowing news could bring the boy to understanding what is happening in the North, and make him hope that liberation would come soon. “I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead…” (Douglass). Other boys did not want to play with him, Frederic was upset and scared. In these words we perceive despair and bitterness lying deep at heart of the boy. Frederic overcomes all obstacles to become literate: he looked at letters at a ship yard, used chalk, walls, and ground. Once, he found a Webster’s spelling book, but used it secretly from his master. And we may conclude that only hard work and longing for knowledge helped the boy in his dream. He did all his best and was reworded for his efforts with ability to read and to write. He never spent money in vain, he bought books. Surely, the boy was quick on the uptake, because he learned alphabet after one day.

The author advises us what everybody should do. First of all, to be kind to people and help them, like Frederic was helped. People gave advice how to get free, gave him tools. And he accepted all these gifts and used them. And the message is not only to give such tools to other people, but also use them, when you are given. For contemporary pupils it is not that easy to understand how difficult it is to learn to read, when you have nothing. Modern schools have textbooks and teachers. But little Frederic lacked such things, and only due to his zest he became literate. This experience of unenlightened victim makes him strive for freedom, and educating himself Douglass became an empowered and determined man. He reads about abolitionist movements and progresses to awareness in the evils of slavery. But it will happen later, now he is just a little boy wanting to learn to read and write. More sophisticated his ideas of constructivism, sociolinguistics and psychology literacy sound in this essay. The author considers his self-teaching methods, cultural situation, deciphering of meanings of unfamiliar words, investigates context clues, thus, Douglass combines the story about a little boy with adult scientific research.

His ideas transformed into the view that slavery should be abolished in the adult life of the boy. And it is not for nothing, that in the consciousness of a little slave word abolitionist carried so much significance and curiosity. The author highlights not only importance of literacy, but also importance of using right methods and knowledge to get free.

Works Cited

Douglass Frederic. “Learning to Read and Write”. 75 Readings: An anthology. McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Langua, 2003.

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3.4 Annotated Sample Reading: from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

Learning outcomes.

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Read in several genres to understand how conventions are shaped by purpose, language, culture, and expectation.
  • Use reading for inquiry, learning, critical thinking, and communicating in varying rhetorical and cultural contexts.
  • Read a diverse range of texts, attending to relationships among ideas, patterns of organization, and interplay between verbal and nonverbal elements.


Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) was born into slavery in Maryland. He never knew his father, barely knew his mother, and was separated from his grandmother at a young age. As a boy, Douglass understood there to be a connection between literacy and freedom. In the excerpt from his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave , that follows, you will learn about how Douglass learned to read. By age 12, he was reading texts about the natural rights of human beings. At age 15, he began educating other enslaved people. When Douglass was 20, he met Anna Murray, whom he would later marry. Murray helped Douglass plot his escape from slavery. Dressed as a sailor, Douglass bought a train ticket northward. Within 24 hours, he arrived in New York City and declared himself free. Douglass went on to work as an activist in the abolitionist movement as well as the women’s suffrage movement.

In the portion of the text included here, Douglass chooses to represent the dialogue of Mr. Auld, an enslaver who by the laws of the time owns Douglass. Douglass describes this moment with detail and accuracy, including Mr. Auld’s use of a racial slur. In an interview with the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), Harvard professor Randall Kennedy (b. 1954), who has traced the historical evolution of the word, notes that one of its first uses, recorded in 1619, appears to have been descriptive rather than derogatory. However, by the mid-1800s, White people had appropriated the term and begun using it with its current negative connotation. In response, over time, Black people have reclaimed the word (or variations of it) for different purposes, including mirroring racism, creating irony, and reclaiming community and personal power—using the word for a contrasting purpose to the way others use it. Despite this evolution, Professor Kennedy explains that the use of the word should be accompanied by a deep understanding of one’s audience and by being clear about the intention. However, even when intention is very clear and malice is not intended, harm can, and likely will, occur. Thus, Professor Kennedy cautions that all people should understand the history of the word, be aware of its potential negative effect on an audience, and therefore use it sparingly, or preferably not at all.

In the case of Mr. Auld and Douglass, Douglass gives an account of Auld’s exact language in order to hold a mirror to the racism of Mr. Auld—and the reading audience of his memoir—and to emphasize the theme that literacy (or education) is one way to combat racism.

Living by Their Own Words

Literacy from unexpected sources.

annotated text From the title and from Douglass’s use of pronoun I, you know this work is autobiographical and therefore written from the first-person point of view. end annotated text

public domain text [excerpt begins with first full paragraph on page 33 and ends on page 34 where the paragraph ends] end public domain text

public domain text Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. end public domain text

annotated text Douglass describes the background situation and the culture of the time, which he will defy in his quest for literacy. The word choice in his narration of events indicates that he is writing for an educated audience. end annotated text

public domain text To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would 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.” end public domain text

annotated text In sharing this part of the narrative, Douglass underscores the importance of literacy. He provides a description of Mr. Auld, a slaveholder, who seeks to impose illiteracy as a means to oppress others. In this description of Mr. Auld’s reaction, Douglass shows that slaveholders feared the power that enslaved people would have if they could read and write. end annotated text

annotated text Douglass provides the details of Auld’s dialogue not only because it is a convention of narrative genre but also because it demonstrates the purpose and motivation for his forthcoming pursuit of literacy. We have chosen to maintain the authenticity of the original text by using the language that Douglass offers to quote Mr. Auld’s dialogue because it both provides context for the rhetorical situation and underscores the value of the attainment of literacy for Douglass. However, contemporary audiences must understand that this language should be uttered only under very narrow circumstances in any current rhetorical situation. In general, it is best to avoid its use. end annotated text

public domain text These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. 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. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. end public domain text

annotated text In this reflection, Douglass has a definitive and transformative moment with reading and writing. The moment that sparked a desire for literacy is a common feature in literacy narratives, particularly those of enslaved people. In that moment, he understood the value of literacy and its life-changing possibilities; that transformative moment is a central part of the arc of this literacy narrative. end annotated text

public domain text 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. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. 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. I acknowledge the benefit of both. end public domain text

annotated text Douglass articulates that this moment changed his relationship to literacy and ignited a purposeful engagement with language and learning that would last throughout his long life. The rhythm, sentence structure, and poetic phrasing in this reflection provide further evidence that Douglass, over the course of his life, actively pursued and mastered language after having this experience with Mr. Auld. end annotated text

public domain text [excerpt continues with the beginning of Chapter 7 on page 36 and ends with the end of the paragraph at the top of page 39] end public domain text

public domain text [In Chapter 7, the narrative continues] I lived in Master Hugh’s family about seven years. During this time, I succeeded in learning to read and write. In accomplishing this, I was compelled to resort to various stratagems. I had no regular teacher. My mistress, who had kindly commenced to instruct me, had, in compliance with the advice and direction of her husband, not only ceased to instruct, but had set her face against my being instructed by any one else. It is due, however, to my mistress to say of her, that she did not adopt this course of treatment immediately. She at first lacked the depravity indispensable to shutting me up in mental darkness. It was at least necessary for her to have some training in the exercise of irresponsible power, to make her equal to the task of treating me as though I were a brute. end public domain text

public domain text My mistress was, as I have said, a kind and tender-hearted woman; and in the simplicity of her soul she commenced, when I first went to live with her, to treat me as she supposed one human being ought to treat another. In entering upon the duties of a slaveholder, she did not seem to perceive that I sustained to her the relation of a mere chattel, and that for her to treat me as a human being was not only wrong, but dangerously so. Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness. The first step in her downward course was in her ceasing to instruct me. She now commenced to practise her husband’s precepts. She finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself. end public domain text

annotated text Douglass describes in detail a person in his life and his relationship to her. He uses specific diction to describe her kindness and to help readers get to know her—a “tear” for the “suffering”; “bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner.” end annotated text

public domain text 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 that 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. end public domain text

annotated text The fact that Douglass can understand the harm caused by the institution of slavery to slaveholders as well as to enslaved people shows a level of sophistication in thought, identifies the complexity and detriment of this historical period, and demonstrates an acute awareness of the rhetorical situation, especially for his audience for this text. The way that he articulates compassion for the slaveholders, despite their ill treatment of him, would create empathy in his readers and possibly provide a revelation for his audience. end annotated text

public domain text 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. 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 . end public domain text

annotated text Once again, Douglass underscores the value that literacy has for transforming the lived experiences of enslaved people. The reference to the inch and the ell circles back to Mr. Auld’s warnings and recalls the impact of that moment on his life. end annotated text

public domain text 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 of errands, I always took my book with me, and by going 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. I am strongly tempted to give the names of two or three of those little boys, as a testimonial of the gratitude and affection I bear them; but prudence forbids;—not that it would injure me, but it might embarrass them; for it is almost an unpardonable offence to teach slaves to read in this Christian country. end public domain text

annotated text Douglass comments on the culture of the time, which still permitted slavery; he is sensitive to the fact that these boys might be embarrassed by their participation in unacceptable, though humanitarian, behavior. His audience will also recognize the irony in his tone when he writes that it is “an unpardonable offense to teach slaves . . . in this Christian country.” Such behavior is surely “unchristian.” end annotated text

public domain text It is enough to say of the dear little fellows, that they lived on Philpot Street, very near Durgin and Bailey’s ship-yard. I used to talk this matter of slavery over with them. I would sometimes say to them, I wished I could be as free as they would be when they got to be men. “You will be free as soon as you are twenty-one, but I am a slave for life ! Have not I as good a right to be free as you have?” These words used to trouble them; they would express for me the liveliest sympathy, and console me with the hope that something would occur by which I might be free. end public domain text

annotated text Douglass pursues and attains literacy not only for his own benefit; his knowledge also allows him to begin to instruct, as well as advocate for, those around him. Douglass’s use of language and his understanding of the rhetorical situation give the audience evidence of the power of literacy for all people, round out the arc of his narrative, and provide a resolution. end annotated text

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Frederick Douglass Introduction

learning to read and write by frederick douglass essay


Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) published the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself in 1845 . Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in 1818 on a slave plantation in eastern Maryland. His mother, Harriet Bailey, was a slave at Holme Hill Farm. His father is unknown, but was a white man, rumored to be his mother’s owner, Aaron Anthony. After he died, Douglass (age 8) became the property of Thomas Auld and his wife Sophia in Baltimore. Finding Douglass to be an unusually inquisitive and intelligent child, Mrs. Auld begin to teach him to read. But Mr. Auld soon furiously stopped these lessons, since learning “would forever unfit him to be a slave.” Somehow, despite all the significant obstacles placed in his path (note the metaphors), including all the power of his owner and of slave culture, Douglass would build on Mrs. Auld’s few lessons and learn to read and write on his own. In Chapters VI and VII of his Narrative, Douglass powerfully recounts how he learned to read and write. The story abounds with insights about learning as liberation. He led one of the most heroically-inspiring American lives.

  • Authored by : Stephen Burke. Provided by : Rockland Community College. License : CC BY: Attribution
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Published: May 17, 2022

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Table of contents

Why would slaveholders want ignorant slaves, loss of identity, lack of literacy, consequences of knowledge, in conclusion, works cited.

  • Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. 1855. New York: Dover Publications, 1969. Print.
  • Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass , An American Slave. 1845. Boston: Antislavery Literature Project, 2005. Print.
  • Gottesman, Ronald. Frederick Douglass. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Gen. Ed. Nina Baym. 6th ed. Vol. B. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003. 2029-2127. Print.
  • Olney, James. I Was Born ‘: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature. The Slave’s Narrative. Eds. Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates. Oxford University Press, 1985. Print

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Learning to Read and Write by Frederick Douglass: Summary Essay

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learning to read and write by frederick douglass essay

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  • Character Analysis,

Frederick Douglass

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Frederick Douglass: Learning to Read and Write

Frederick Douglass: Learning to Read and Write

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Frederick Douglass’ narrative, “Learning to Read and Write” talked about how he accomplished the feat of becoming a literate individual through the use of self-teaching at a young age. Douglass describes the ways in which he enlisted the aid of young children to assist him with his learning. He also went into detail about how his newly acquired abilities “had been a curse rather than a blessing”. (p. 3) Douglass accounted how his ability to read later on assisted him in his succession with “learning how to write” (p. 5)

I was able to relate with Frederick Douglass in how he had minimal help with learning how to read. Being a soldier in the Army, I must learn to be an independent individual and acquire knowledge on tasks and drills that would otherwise be unknown to me. The narrative illustrates my personal views of the world, in that learning something new is not always going to be as easy as it seems, and may require additional assistance from other people. Douglass clearly communicated his defined struggle with his journey to learn how to read, and eventually write, after years upon years of personal determination and courage.

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His dedication to become a more intelligent being and literate person inspires me to better myself as a person and as a soldier. Frederick Douglass’ narrative reopened my mind to the personal courage and dedication it takes to walk down the path of becoming successful at anything. It portrays the message that whatever I put my mind to, I will eventually be able to accomplish anything, regardless of the obstacles I will face. Although Douglass’ writing touched me on many levels, I felt that when he immediately stereotyped the two Irishmen that he encountered in town, he was wrong, in the sense that not everyone is the same.

By him labeling them as “treacherous” (p. 5), he allowed himself to be no better than a man who would jump to the assumption that he was someone else’s slave. “Learning to Read and Write” was an enjoyable and inspirational read that detailed one man’s journey to becoming literate amongst a society that would rather discourage him from doing so. I believe that anyone seeking to better themselves at something but find themselves wanting to quit should take a moment and read Douglass’ narrative. It sends a message that regardless of the difficulties of the task at hand, the rewards can and will be great.

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Frederick douglass learning to read and write summary.

The "Narrative life of Frederick Douglass" was more than an autobiography. It summarized historically, politically and legally what it was like to be a slave back in the 1 ass's and on, but through Hess experience & journey also provided a much broader picture and detailed insight of what actually takes a slave to gain

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Throughout the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the author consistently portrays the disturbing and revolting experiences endured by Frederick Douglass while he was enslaved. In this work, Douglass exposes how slavery corrupts and changes individuals, demonstrating its insidious impact on a society that claims to follow Christian principles. One example of this corruption

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The Teacher in Himself In Frederick Douglass narrative essay, "Learning to Read," he explains how he taught himself how to read and write. His slave owners did not want him to earn an education, since they feared a slave who thought independently. Believe Douglass does not have an enabling figure in his life because he

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In a letter to Captain Thomas Laud published in a newspaper, Frederick Douglass confronts Captain Laud in a public manner about their previous relationship as slave and slave master. Douglass presents himself as intelligent and sophisticated, which proves that he is capTABLE of acting in a manner that is opposite of current stereotypes. Some of

Learning to Read and Write

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The Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave to become a bestseller in 1845. Douglass accounts of cruelty, aberrantly, and immorality throughout his novel successfully portrayed his argument that slavery is a depraved practice. Due to the rapidly expanding cotton industry, as many as four million men, women, and children were enslaved in

Frederick douglass narrative of the life of an american slave Analysis

With the use of juxtaposition against the horrifying accounts of his experiences as slave, and the metaphoric and descriptive language used to describe a life Of liberty, Douglass powerfully portrays the independent life he seeks. Ironically, once achieved, Douglass is unTABLE to realize the security he dreams accompanies a free life, and lives tentatively in

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Up until 1865. bondage and all of its force and inhuman treatment was accepted across the United provinces. The self-acclaimed “Land of the Free” was non a free land for slaves like Fredrick Douglass. or even Jim. a fictional character in the fresh Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Slavery depicted in the antecedently mentioned novel is

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Learning How to Read and Write: Frederick Douglass' Life

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