Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
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"Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now," said he, "if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy." These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty--to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. (6.3)
Mr. Auld accidentally teaches Douglass why it's so important that slaves be kept illiterate. If a slave learned to read, he would no longer be satisfied to be a slave. In Mr. Auld's mind, of course, this would "ruin" him. Douglass learns an important lesson here about how the slave-masters keep their slaves from rebelling and running away. White men only have the power to enslave black people if they can keep them from getting educated.
The first step in her downward course was in her ceasing to instruct me. She now commenced to practise her husband's precepts. She finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself. She was not satisfied with simply doing as well as he had commanded; she seemed anxious to do better. Nothing seemed to make her angrier than to see me with a newspaper. She seemed to think that here lay the danger. I have had her rush at me with a face made all up of fury, and snatch from me a newspaper, in a manner that fully revealed her apprehension. She was an apt woman; and a little experience soon demonstrated, to her satisfaction, that education and slavery were incompatible with each other. (7.2)
When Mrs. Auld stops teaching Douglass, he learns a valuable lesson: education and slavery are incompatible. For Mrs. Auld, the more she learns about slavery, the more fearful and angry she becomes.
We used frequently to talk about the fight with Covey, and as often as we did so, he would claim my success as the result of the roots which he gave me. This superstition is very common among the more ignorant slaves. A slave seldom dies but that his death is attributed to trickery. (10.22)
When Douglass achieves his victory over Covey, he attributes it to his vow to no longer be a slave. But the other slaves cannot accept this explanation; they decide that the root Sandy gave him must have been magic. In other words, one of the reasons the other slaves can't follow Douglass's example and stand up for their freedom is that they're too ignorant. Since they don't have the education he has, they superstitiously attribute his success to magic.