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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
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READ STUDY GUIDE: Chapters VII–VIII

 

Chapter 7

I lived in Master Hugh's family about seven years.
During this time, I succeeded in learning to read and
write. In accomplishing this, I was compelled to re-
sort to various stratagems. I had no regular teacher.
My mistress, who had kindly commenced to instruct
me, had, in compliance with the advice and direc-
tion of her husband, not only ceased to instruct, but
had set her face against my being instructed by any
one else. It is due, however, to my mistress to say
of her, that she did not adopt this course of treat-
ment immediately. She at first lacked the depravity
indispensable to shutting me up in mental darkness.
It was at least necessary for her to have some training
in the exercise of irresponsible power, to make her
equal to the task of treating me as though I were
a brute.
My mistress was, as I have said, a kind and tender-
hearted woman; and in the simplicity of her soul she
commenced, when I first went to live with her, to
treat me as she supposed one human being ought
to treat another. In entering upon the duties of a
slaveholder, she did not seem to perceive that I sus-
tained to her the relation of a mere chattel, and
that for her to treat me as a human being was not
only wrong, but dangerously so. Slavery proved as
injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there,
she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman.
There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had
not a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for
the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came
within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to
divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its in-
fluence, the tender heart became stone, and the
lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like
fierceness. 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 be-
came 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
more angry 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 incom-
patible with each other.
From this time I was most narrowly watched. If I
was in a separate room any considerable length of
time, I was sure to be suspected of having a book,
and was at once called to give an account of myself.
All this, however, was too late. The first step had
been taken. Mistress, in teaching me the alphabet,
had given me the ~inch,~ and no precaution could pre-
vent me from taking the ~ell.~
The plan which I adopted, and the one by which
I was most successful, was that of making friends of
all the little white boys whom I met in the street.
As many of these as I could, I converted into teach-
ers. With their kindly aid, obtained at different times
and in different places, I finally succeeded in learn-
ing to read. When I was sent of errands, I always
took my book with me, and by going one part of
my errand quickly, I found time to get a lesson be-
fore my return. I used also to carry bread with me,
enough of which was always in the house, and to
which I was always welcome; for I was much better
off in this regard than many of the poor white chil-
dren in our neighborhood. This bread I used to be-
stow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return,
would give me that more valuable bread of knowl-
edge. I am strongly tempted to give the names of
two or three of those little boys, as a testimonial of
the gratitude and affection I bear them; but pru-
dence forbids;—not that it would injure me, but it
might embarrass them; for it is almost an unpar-
donable offence to teach slaves to read in this Chris-
tian country. It is enough to say of the dear little
fellows, that they lived on Philpot Street, very near
Durgin and Bailey's ship-yard. I used to talk this
matter of slavery over with them. I would sometimes
say to them, I wished I could be as free as they
would be when they got to be men. "You will be
free as soon as you are twenty-one, ~but I am a slave
for life!~ Have not I as good a right to be free as
you have?" These words used to trouble them; they
would express for me the liveliest sympathy, and con-
sole me with the hope that something would occur
by which I might be free.
I was now about twelve years old, and the thought
of being ~a slave for life~ began to bear heavily upon
my heart. Just about this time, I got hold of a book
entitled "The Columbian Orator." Every opportu-
nity I got, I used to read this book. Among much of
other interesting matter, I found in it a dialogue be-
tween a master and his slave. The slave was repre-
sented as having run away from his master three
times. The dialogue represented the conversation
which took place between them, when the slave was
retaken the third time. In this dialogue, the whole
argument in behalf of slavery was brought forward
by the master, all of which was disposed of by the
slave. The slave was made to say some very smart as
well as impressive things in reply to his master—
things which had the desired though unexpected ef-
fect; for the conversation resulted in the voluntary
emancipation of the slave on the part of the master.
In the same book, I met with one of Sheridan's
mighty speeches on and in behalf of Catholic eman-
cipation. These were choice documents to me. I read
them over and over again with unabated interest.
They gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own
soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind,
and died away for want of utterance. The moral
which I gained from the dialogue was the power of
truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder. What
I got from Sheridan was a bold denunciation of slav-
ery, and a powerful vindication of human rights.
The reading of these documents enabled me to
utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments
brought forward to sustain slavery; but while they
relieved me of one difficulty, they brought on an-
other even more painful than the one of which I was
relieved. The more I read, the more I was led to
abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them
in no other light than a band of successful robbers,
who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and
stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land
reduced us to slavery. I loathed them as being the
meanest as well as the most wicked of men. As I
read and contemplated the subject, behold! that very
discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted
would follow my learning to read had already come,
to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish.
As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that
learning to read had been a curse rather than a bless-
ing. It had given me a view of my wretched condi-
tion, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the
horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out.
In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for
their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast.
I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to
my own. Any thing, no matter what, to get rid of
thinking! It was this everlasting thinking of my con-
dition that tormented me. There was no getting rid
of it. It was pressed upon me by every object within
sight or hearing, animate or inanimate. The silver
trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal
wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear
no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and
seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment
me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw
nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without
hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It
looked from every star, it smiled in every calm,
breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.
I often found myself regretting my own existence,
and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of
being free, I have no doubt but that I should have
killed myself, or done something for which I should
have been killed. While in this state of mind, I was
eager to hear any one speak of slavery. I was a ready
listener. Every little while, I could hear something
about the abolitionists. It was some time before I
found what the word meant. It was always used in
such connections as to make it an interesting word
to me. If a slave ran away and succeeded in getting
clear, or if a slave killed his master, set fire to a
barn, or did any thing very wrong in the mind of a
slaveholder, it was spoken of as the fruit of ~abolition.~
Hearing the word in this connection very often, I set
about learning what it meant. The dictionary af-
forded me little or no help. I found it was "the act
of abolishing;" but then I did not know what was
to be abolished. Here I was perplexed. I did not
dare to ask any one about its meaning, for I was
satisfied that it was something they wanted me to
know very little about. After a patient waiting, I got
one of our city papers, containing an account of the
number of petitions from the north, praying for the
abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, and
of the slave trade between the States. From this
time I understood the words ~abolition~ and ~abolition-
ist,~ and always drew near when that word was spoken,
expecting to hear something of importance to my-
self and fellow-slaves. The light broke in upon me
by degrees. I went one day down on the wharf of
Mr. Waters; and seeing two Irishmen unloading a
scow of stone, I went, unasked, and helped them.
When we had finished, one of them came to me
and asked me if I were a slave. I told him I was. He
asked, "Are ye a slave for life?" I told him that I
was. The good Irishman seemed to be deeply af-
fected by the statement. He said to the other that
it was a pity so fine a little fellow as myself should
be a slave for life. He said it was a shame to hold
me. They both advised me to run away to the north;
that I should find friends there, and that I should
be free. I pretended not to be interested in what
they said, and treated them as if I did not under-
stand them; for I feared they might be treacherous.
White men have been known to encourage slaves to
escape, and then, to get the reward, catch them and
return them to their masters. I was afraid that these
seemingly good men might use me so; but I never-
theless remembered their advice, and from that time
I resolved to run away. I looked forward to a time
at which it would be safe for me to escape. I was
too young to think of doing so immediately; besides,
I wished to learn how to write, as I might have oc-
casion to write my own pass. I consoled myself with
the hope that I should one day find a good chance.
Meanwhile, I would learn to write.
The idea as to how I might learn to write was
suggested to me by being in Durgin and Bailey's
ship-yard, and frequently seeing the ship carpenters,
after hewing, and getting a piece of timber ready
for use, write on the timber the name of that part
of the ship for which it was intended. When a piece
of timber was intended for the larboard side, it
would be marked thus—"L." When a piece was for
the starboard side, it would be marked thus—"S." A
piece for the larboard side forward, would be marked
thus—"L. F." When a piece was for starboard side
forward, it would be marked thus—"S. F." For lar-
board aft, it would be marked thus—"L. A." For star-
board aft, it would be marked thus—"S. A." I soon
learned the names of these letters, and for what
they were intended when placed upon a piece of
timber in the ship-yard. I immediately commenced
copying them, and in a short time was able to make
the four letters named. After that, when I met with
any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him
I could write as well as he. The next word would be,
"I don't believe you. Let me see you try it." I would
then make the letters which I had been so fortunate
as to learn, and ask him to beat that. In this way I
got a good many lessons in writing, which it is quite
possible I should never have gotten in any other way.
During this time, my copy-book was the board fence,
brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a
lump of chalk. With these, I learned mainly how to
write. I then commenced and continued copying the
Italics in Webster's Spelling Book, until I could make
them all without looking on the book. By this time,
my little Master Thomas had gone to school, and
learned how to write, and had written over a number
of copy-books. These had been brought home, and
shown to some of our near neighbors, and then laid
aside. My mistress used to go to class meeting at
the Wilk Street meetinghouse every Monday after-
noon, and leave me to take care of the house. When
left thus, I used to spend the time in writing in the
spaces left in Master Thomas's copy-book, copying
what he had written. I continued to do this until I
could write a hand very similar to that of Master
Thomas. Thus, after a long, tedious effort for years,
I finally succeeded in learning how to write.
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