In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass wrote about how he learned to read. His ingenuity, drive and resourcefulness inspire me to this day.
As a young child, Douglass (1818-1895) overheard his enslaver chastise his own wife for teaching Douglass to read. He sternly scolded her: “It is unlawful and unsafe to teach a slave to read … it will forever unfit him to be a slave.” The young boy overheard those words and later wrote of the incident. “From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. I set out with high hope and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read”. (Chapter VII)
Learning to read and write enabled Douglass to escape bondage and become an effective abolitionist. He was a powerful voice for human rights for all people, including women— a radical idea in his day.
Frederick Douglass believed that learning to read was his path to freedom. I believe that too. My entire professional life has been teaching reading from basic skills with first graders to critical analysis of text with college students.
Douglass learned to read beyond the printed page. He “read” the faces of people he met, the moods both dangerous and inviting, the signs of the changing times. He spoke out fearlessly for truth and freedom on behalf of all people. He used his gifts wisely and well.
So must we.
Quotations from The Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, published in 1845 by Duke Classics.
Sister Mary Navarre OP has also written of “wisdom and hope” told by three African American poets. See her article in Global Sisters Report on Douglass and the poetry of Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, and Amanda Gorman.