Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Chapter 6 Summary
In Baltimore, Douglass's new mistress is Mrs. Auld, and she's a kind woman. Douglass has never seen anything like her before.
At first, he's not even sure how to behave. After all, for his entire life, Douglass has been taught that the proper way for a slave to act towards his masters is with what he calls "crouching servility." That means, roughly speaking, acting like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings or a house elf in the Harry Potter series, full time.
This lady, however, is a problem. Not only does she let him look her in the eyes, she actually gets mad when he puts on his "crouching servility" act and starts bowing and shuffling around. And then she starts teaching him to read!
Douglass is confused by all this. But he doesn't have to worry about it for very long.
Mrs. Auld has never had a slave before, so she doesn't know that you're not supposed to treat them like human beings. When Mr. Auld catches her teaching Douglass his ABCs, he gives her a lesson. Teaching a slave to read isn't just a bad idea, it's against the law. If you teach a slave to read, he tells her, he won't be satisfied with being a slave any more, and then he'll be no good to anyone.
At first Douglass is bummed. He hadn't been all that pumped about learning to read originally, but now that he's not allowed to, he gets a whole new perspective on the matter. Part of it is just the forbidden fruit syndrome: if you want to make someone want to do something, just tell them they can't.
But there's more to it than that. Douglass has always been a little confused about how it was that white people were able to enslave black people. Suddenly he has an answer. Slaves are kept down because they don't know any better.
Suddenly, Douglass sees this whole education thing in a new light: if he can learn to read, he reasons, he won't have to be a slave anymore.
Before Douglass sets off on his quest to learn to read, he makes some observations about the differences between slavery in the city and on the plantation. Slaves are treated better in Baltimore, and Douglass thinks he knows why: on the plantation, there isn't anyone to see how slaves are treated, but in the city masters would be ashamed to have a reputation for cruelty.