In his autobiography, “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”,  Douglass often lapses into assertions that the condition of slavery and education are incompatible for slaves. Throughout the text he is constantly oscillating between an intense desire to become more educated and gaining literacy and wanting to give up hope entirely. At one point in “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”, he states in one of theimportant quotes from “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” “I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but offered no ladder upon which to get out” (61). For Douglass, finally being able to read and understand more fully the implications of slavery sometimes served to make him more miserable as he came to comprehend the hopelessness of the situation for himself and other slaves. To make matters more complex, acquiring his education was a constant battle since he had to remain secretive since it was “unlawful to teach a slave to read” (20). With the sense that the world was against his pursuit to learn, Douglass seemed to suffer as a result of his education and literacy as it became more advanced.


Once he had achieved his goal of learning to read and write well and become literate, he glimpsed a whole new world, which made the one he existed in even harder to bear. At times, he suffers from hopelessness and questions the value of his education, especially because he feels condemned to live within the system of slavery. After being under the cruel and watchful eye of Mr. Covey, Douglass states,  “My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died: the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute” (48). In other words, slavery and education are incompatible because the system itself (with backbreaking, mind-numbing labor) does not allow the slaves the mental and even physical freedom necessary to make any use of education. Instead, whatever knowledge has been attained might just fester in the slave’s mind and make him or her even unhappier with the conditions and treatment than before. Unfortunately, when Douglass begins to lose hope in his education and its value, the words of the slave owner inevitably come to mind when it is said, “as to himself, it [education] could do him no good, but a great deal of harm” (69). While the reader may shudder at relating to Covey or any of the other cruel masters, this is one point that is sometimes confirmed, especially when Douglass is unhappy as a result of his learning.


In The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, when Douglass puts forth the notion that education and slavery are incompatible with one another, he is not only referring to his own situation, but that of the slave owners as well. At one point, Covey states, “if you give a nigger an inch, he will take a mile” (78). Douglass echoes this sentiment while he learns to read and tells the reader that his mistress “had given me an inch and no precaution could prevent me from taking the ell” (81). To the slave owner, the prospect of an educated slave was a dangerous notion since he would be more “unmanageable” than those without learning. This proves to be true and is played out as Douglass reaches the pinnacle and finally acts out violently. It is by far in the best interest of the slave owner to keep the slaves ignorant of concepts of freedom or education because it might not only make them wistful, and thoughtful, but by proxy, less useful to them as slaves. In order to keep slavery as a stable institution, it was important for many of the slave owners in the text to make educating a slave something that could be punished. Well-meaning slave owners were heavily criticized for assisting a slave in his or her education and the fact that it was illegal to teach a slave to read indicates the danger the white slave-owning establishment sees as inherent to education.  In other words, by their fierce protection of the practices of education, the slave owners were implicitly admitting that through education lay some kind of freedom, some way of circumventing their otherwise absolute power.

Other essays and articles in our Literature Archives that might interest you include :  Analysis and Summary of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass     •   Major Themes in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass   •   Opposing Representations of Christianity in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass   •  The Importance of Education and Literacy in Slave Narratives   Slavery in America’s South : Implications and Effects    •     Comparison of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and the Autobiography of Malcolm X 

  For more background, be sure to view this full analysis and summary of “The Narrative of Frederick Douglass”