The gift of free thought

February 25, 1998

"The frequent hearing of my mistress reading the Bible aloud ... awakened my curiosity in respect to this mystery of reading, and roused in me the desire to learn. Up to this time I had known nothing whatever of this wonderful art, and my ignorance and inexperience of what it could do for me ... emboldened me to ask her to teach me to read. ... She readily consented, and in an incredibly short time, by her kind assistance, I had mastered the alphabet and could spell words of three or four letters. My mistress seemed almost as proud of my progress as if I had been her own child, and supposing that her husband would be as well pleased, she made no secret of what she was doing for me. Indeed, she exultingly told him of the aptness of her pupil and of her intention to persevere ... in teaching me ... to read the Bible. And here arose the first dark cloud over my Baltimore prospects, the precursor of chilling blasts and drenching storms. Master Hugh was astounded beyond measure and, probably for the first time proceeded to unfold to his wife the true philosophy of the slave system, and the peculiar roles necessary in the nature of the case to be observed in the management of human chattels. Of course he forbade her to give me any further instruction, telling her that to do so in the first place was unlawful, as it was also unsafe. ... If he learns to read the Bible, it will forever unfit him to be a slave. If you teach him how to read, he'll want to know how to write, and this accomplished, he'll be running away with himself ...

Very well, thought I. Knowledge unfits a child to be a slave. I instinctively assented to the proposition, and from that moment I understood the direct pathway from slavery to freedom."

- Frederick Douglass,

From Life and Times

of Frederick Douglass" (1881)

Pub Date: 2/25/98

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