I was afraid to speak to any one for fear of speaking to the wrong one, and thereby falling into the hands of money-loving kidnappers.
Those are the words of Frederick Douglass recalling his state of mind upon his arrival to New York as a fugitive slave on Monday, September 3, 1838.
Yesterday I read Frederick Douglass’ 1845 autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave in one sitting starting around 10:00 pm. I did not intend to read it all at once (I meant to go to bed after reading the first chapter), but I got drawn into it and was not able to put it down until I finished reading about four hours after I started.
The book begins with an introduction by William Lloyd Garrison and a letter from Wendell Phillips. I had read some of each of their works previously and knew that they both were famous for their abolitionist writings and speeches. Upon finishing their introductions and beginning the first chapter of the book, I was thus surprised to find that Douglass’ writing style was more poetic and pleasing to read than either William Lloyd Garrison’s or Wendell Phillip’s writing.
The effect that this had on me as I read Douglass’ narrative of his life as a slave was powerful. Douglass describes how part of the strategy to keep slaves subdued was to make sure that they did not learn how to read or write. As Douglass tells the story of how he learned about this and set out in defiance to learn to read and write no matter the risk, the reader knows, by evidence of the current work that he or she is reading, that Douglass succeeded with flying colors. As I read his narrative I could not help but realize not only how truly remarkable it is that he succeeded at learning to read and write while being treated so inhumanely by all who enslaved him, but also how miraculous it is that he learned to write far better than most people who are brought up free and given access to means of education.
While some readers may use the rarity of Douglass’ case as an excuse to continue holding their belief that children need to be forced to learn to read, write, do math, etc, as many students uninterested in learning these things are forced to do in most schools, I for one see Douglass’ life story as yet another reason to adopt the unschooling philosophy that children have a natural desire to learn and should be free to learn what they want when they want, rather than be forced to learn a certain curriculum grade after grade that does not necessarily even interest them. Parents and educators should provide an environment conducive to learning and help children learn when they want help, but they should not try to force a child to learn something that he or she does not want to learn by imposing a curriculum on them and grading them.
Frederick Douglass’ narrative is inspirational, emotional, educational, and captivating. I highly recommend it.