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Fedrick Douglass Analysis Essay

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Timothy Dashiell

Ms Coleman

AP Language and Composition

Date- March 21st 2015

In the Narrative of The Life of Fredrick Douglass, there are many themes. The main theme in this narrative is the way the white slave-owners used ignorance and untruthfulness to perpetuate slavery. From the time Fredrick Douglass was born his slave owners were untruthful and they also kept him ignorant when it came to things like religion, education and even his family heritage. This Narrative explains the strategies and procedures by which whites gain and keep power over blacks from their birth onward.

In the beginning of the narrative, Douglass says that he doesn’t know what year he was born. He assumed his birth year was around 1818 based on a comment he heard from his master at the time. Like many slaves before and even after him he was separated from his mother after his birth and was never told who or where she was. Slave owners knowingly kept slaves ignorant of basic facts about themselves, such as their birth date or their paternity; this enforced ignorance and robbed children of their natural sense of individual identity that the white children had. In Chapter 1, Douglass talks about when he felt unhappy and confused about the fact that white children knew their ages, but he was not allowed even to ask his own. The slave owners used ignorance and untruthfulness in order to keep their slaves “grounded”, many of the masters felt that the more the slaves knew, the more dangerous they were.

Another way the whites used ignorance and untruthfulness to keep power is by making sure that all of their slaves lacked the proper education. As slave children grow older, slave owners did everything they could to prevent their slaves from learning how to read and write. They did this because literacy would give the slaves a sense of self-sufficiency and capability. Slaveholders understood that literacy would lead slaves to question the right of whites to keep slaves. At the time Douglass was writing, many people believed that slavery was a natural state of being. They also believed that blacks were incapable of participating in civil society and thus should be kept as workers for whites.

Throughout his experience as a slave, Douglass finds that masters consistently seek to deprive their slaves of knowledge, in order to crush slaves’ wills to be free, or to make it so that the slaves cannot even comprehend of being free. When Hugh Auld finds his wife, Sophia, teaching Frederick how to write, he demands that she stop, saying that “learning would spoil the best nigger in the world.” These masters were so determined to keep slaves ignorant that they even used religious holidays as opportunities; Masters encouraged slaves to revel and drink excessively during their annual Christmas holidays, so that the slaves sicken themselves when left to their own. While reading this I thought that the master’s goal was to make the slaves think of themselves as unable to be responsible for themselves. Sinister slave owners contrived situations that force slaves to develop a distorted understanding of the nature of freedom. This way, slaves come to believe that they cannot handle an independent existence and that the only way they can survive is by following their master.

Fredrick Douglass was lucky however and he realized that education was the only way to fight the ignorance that was being forced on him and his fellow slaves. Douglass becomes dedicated to educating himself and his fellow slaves because he sees it as a route to empowerment. The information that Douglass encounters through literacy increases his understanding of the dehumanizing institution of slavery and the slaveholders’ strategies for promoting the ignorance of their slaves, and strengthens his desire to emancipate himself.

The slave owners not only had a plan to shove ignorance down the throats of their slaves, they also had what appears to be a “plan B” for when the forced ignorance doesn’t work or doesn’t sink in as well. “Plain B” is used once some slaves gain the confidence they’ve been trying to keep from them weather it’s through other slaves or in Fredrick Douglass’ case education. They are so passionate about this idea of ignorance that men like Edward Covey are around to do whatever it takes to keep these slaves ignorant and dependent on their masters.

In the narrative, Auld considers Douglass unmanageable, so Auld rents him for one year to Edward Covey, a man known for “breaking” slaves. Covey manages, in the first six months, to work and whip all the spirit out of Douglass. Covey’s punishment causes Douglass to become a brutish man, no longer interested in reading or freedom, capable only of resting from his injuries and exhaustion .Even though Douglass manages to overcome Covey, it doesn’t take away the fact that these masters were so dedicated to this theme of ignorance that they have a person whose one job is basically to re-break the spirits of the slaves both physically and mentally.

The main theme of this narrative is ignorance because not only are the slave owners trying to keep the slaves ignorant but the narrative shows that once the slaves gain the information that has been kept from them then they are on the right track to freedom. In the narrative during his time with Auld, Douglass learns that knowledge must be the way to freedom. He learns this after Auld forbids his wife to teach Douglass how to read and write because education ruins slaves. Douglass sees that Auld has unwittingly revealed the strategy by which whites manage to keep blacks as slaves and by which blacks might free themselves. Doug-lass presents his own self-education as the primary means by which he is able to free himself, and as his greatest tool to work for the freedom of all slaves. The theme of ignorance is so present in this story that Fredrick must sneak and fight to receive the “antidote” which is education.



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